Sometimes big things come in small packages, and such seemed the case on Wednesday when 32 new members of the Swiss Guards, the colorfully clad former mercenary army that protects the pope, were sworn in during a Vatican ceremony.
Members always take their oath on May 6, the date in 1527 when 147 Swiss Guards gave their lives to defend Pope Clement VII during a sack of Rome.
Appearances aside, being in the Swiss Guard is not like wearing the Mickey Mouse suit at Disneyland. Fundamentally they’re around not to entertain but to defend, and in the age of ISIS and other terrorist threats, that’s not a role to be taken lightly.
On the surface, Wednesday’s ceremony looked no different than years past — the same plumage, the same precise military movements, the same hymns and anthems, the same air of solemnity, and, of course, the same fateful oath to protect the pontiff “with all my strength, sacrificing, if necessary, my life.”
Yet the feel was different, in some ways capturing the overall “Francis effect”.
No member of the Swiss Guard other than the unit’s commander gives interviews, at least until after his service is completed, but on background, many say that Francis has revolutionized the pope’s relationship with the corps.
For one thing, at a handful of public events, especially smaller ones held indoors that have a more informal feel, the pontiff has suggested semi-jokingly that the guards should take a seat if things stretch on for a while.
That may seem a terribly small gesture, but in an institution where protocol has long been mother’s milk, many people were shocked. (Invariably the guards have remained at attention, but at times they’ve struggled to suppress smiles.)
On other occasions, such as last fall’s Synod of Bishops, Francis has been glimpsed shaking hands with guards outside the synod hall and sharing a quick chat before he heads back to the Domus Santa Marta, the lodgings on Vatican grounds where he resides.
That touch, too, has been seen as a previously unthinkable breach of the traditional distance between a pontiff and his protectors.
Though some insist it’s an urban legend, it’s widely believed that shortly after his election, Francis popped out of his room at the Santa Marta to offer a small pastry to the Swiss Guards outside, and to invite them to knock if they ever needed anything.
Reports of that small courtesy sent many tradition-minded observers into conniption fits, with one Italian commentator sniffing that it was akin to Queen Elizabeth prowling the halls of Buckingham Palace wondering if one of the Queen’s Guards would like a beer.
Though family members of the Swiss Guards have always been invited to attend the swearing-in ceremony, they were more in evidence this year, getting some of the VIP seats generally reserved for senior prelates, politicians, and diplomats. As a result, there was a bit more exuberance than normal.
The bottom line is that while the substance of the Swiss Guards’ relationship with the pontiff is the same, the feel is new.
Symbolically, all this expresses something important about the Francis era in Catholicism.
What’s underway isn’t so much a revolution in content but in tone, what might best be described as a great “loosening up” – meaning a focus on the essentials, rather than the traditional packaging around them.
Francis may have opened a debate on a few substantive points, such as whether divorced and civilly remarried Catholics can receive Communion, but on the big-picture issues that most excite secular opinion – female priests, gay marriage, abortion, and so on – Francis has made it clear the Church will not budge.
The way those teachings are expressed, however, is different.
The accent is on compassion and inclusion, not judgment, and the Church’s mood somehow feels warmer. Francis appears to want people to see the Catholic Church as their best friend, not their scold.
Many observers have expressed it as a shift not in lyrics, but in melody. Rather than the “Imperial Death March” from Star Wars, today what many people hear when they see the pope in action is “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke.”
If you can sense that transition even among the Swiss Guards, literally the pope’s last line of defense, you know it’s real.