ROME — In the midst of rumored terrorist threats against the pontiff and possible assaults on the Vatican, 32 new members of the Swiss Guards swore on Wednesday to sacrifice their lives if necessary to keep Pope Francis safe.
Each year new members of the world’s smallest army take their oath on May 6, recalling the date in 1527 when 147 Swiss Guards died defending Pope Clement VII during a sack of Rome by Emperor Charles V.
This year, however, given the rise of ISIS and other terrorist forces, many of which would love nothing better than to take a shot at the pope, the annual ceremony carried special significance.
“In view of the current international tension, swearing-in [today] requires great conviction,” said Christoph Graf, the guard’s commander, during Wednesday’s ceremony.
“Events from the recent past are proof that safety can’t be undervalued,” said Graf, appointed by Francis to head the small army that’s been protecting popes since the fifteenth century.
Before the ceremony, Graf told Crux that in recent years the Swiss Guards’ commitment to risk their lives was more symbolic than anything else. Today, however, it’s becoming “more and more necessary for the members to be willing to give it all, including their lives.”
The swearing-in ceremony took place in the Saint Damaso Courtyard, inside the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace.
Graf also said that more than being willing to die in combat or on protective duty, a member of the world’s smallest army has to be a witness of faithful love and service to God, the pope, and the Church.
“Being witnesses is more difficult than being willing to give our lives,” Graf said. “This is what Pope Francis has asked of us.”
When the pontiff received the corps in a special audience on Monday, he told them that in addition to serving and guarding the pope, a Swiss Guard is “is a Christian with genuine faith.”
He also told them that on top of wearing an armor and carrying halberds and swords, they should always “be armed” with a pocket edition of the Gospel and a rosary.
With a little over 120 men, the Vatican’s army is the smallest and also the oldest standing army in the world.
Surrounded by family and friends, as well as Vatican officials, political and military representatives of the Swiss Confederation, and members of the diplomatic corps accredited to the Vatican, each new recruit swore to “faithfully, loyally and honorably serve the Supreme Pontiff Francis and his legitimate successors.”
In English, the full text of the oath is as follows.
“I swear I will faithfully, loyally, and honorably serve the Supreme Pontiff Francis and his legitimate successors, and also dedicate myself to them with all my strength, sacrificing if necessary also my life to defend them. I assume this same commitment with regard to the Sacred College of Cardinals whenever the see is vacant. Furthermore I promise to the Commanding Captain and my other superiors, respect, fidelity, and obedience. This I swear! May God and our Holy Patrons assist me!”
During the ceremony, each new guard approaches the army’s flag, clasps the banner in his left hand, and then raises his right hand, opening three fingers as a symbol of his faith in the Holy Trinity.
Ever since an assassination attempt in 1981 nearly cost Pope St. John Paul II his life, the Swiss Guards have complemented their ceremonial functions with a more aggressive emphasis on small arms training and unarmed combat.
Beyond Renaissance-era weapons, today’s Swiss Guard is also familiar with pistols and submachine guns. Given the predominance of German-speaking members, it’s probably no surprise that the preferred machine pistol is an Austrian Steyr and the machine gun of choice is a German Heckler and Koch.