ROME – Despite a delay in the formal swearing in of new members due to the coronavirus, the world’s smallest army Wednesday still honored fallen comrades with a private ceremony held digitally for the first time.
In comments to Crux, Sergeant Urs Breitenmoser, spokesman for the Swiss Guard, said “it is the first time that, due to a pandemic, the swearing-in has been postponed. The livestreaming is also a novelty for us.”
Each year on May 6 new guards swear an oath to “faithfully, loyally and honorably serve the Supreme Pontiff and his legitimate successors and I dedicate myself to them with all my strength.”
As the oath goes, the guards also swear to uphold the same commitment “with regard to the Sacred College of Cardinals whenever the Apostolic See is vacant” and promise “respect, fidelity and obedience” to their commanders.
The date marks the anniversary of the 1527 Sack of Rome, during which the mutinous soldiers of Emperor Charles V overran the Eternal City. During the attack, 147 Swiss Guards died defending Pope Clement VII, with the remaining guards finally bringing the pontiff to safety through a passage leading to Castel Sant’Angelo.
The Pontifical Swiss Guard was formed in 1506, at a time when Swiss mercenary units were common throughout Europe. When Switzerland banned its citizens from serving in foreign militaries 1874, the only exception was those choosing to serve in the Pontifical Swiss Guard.
Usually marked by pomp and circumstance, flag waiving and a colorful array of red, blue, and yellow – the colors of the Swiss Guard uniform – this year the anniversary had a much different tone.
Due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, the annual swearing-in of new guards was postponed until October 4.
This year, May 6 was marked by a private Mass and wreath-laying ceremony.
“Initially the guards who were to take their solemn oath were of course disappointed,” Breitenmoser said. However, “it will take place on October 4, always due to the pandemic, hoping that family and friends will be able to be present.”
New guards who would have sworn their oath were not present at Wednesday’s events, but according to a press release from the Swiss Guard, they were each represented, “by their own national language.”
Mass – with proper social distancing measures employed – was celebrated in the German Santa Maria della Pietà church in the Vatican’s Campo Santo Teutonico cemetery by the Assessor for General Affairs of the Vatican Secretariat of State, Italian Monsignor Luigi Roberto Cona.
Swiss Guard Chaplain Father Thomas Widmer offered opening remarks, noting that, “This May 6 is not like other years” due to the coronavirus. While “extraordinary events” like the sacrifice made by the 147 guards who died in 1527 is admirable, Widmer urged the guards to focus on their “ordinary service and the small everyday things” that their job entails.
Cona opened the Mass by saying that the ceremony honoring the fallen guards “is very particular this year in the time of the coronavirus,” and urged attendees to pray for Swiss Guards “who are no longer, who have been invited to the house of the Father,” and for their families.
He also urged prayers for the doctors, nurses and volunteers working to assist the sick, for those who are dying, and for those “who weep for their loss,” asking that God use “our humanity” to bring them peace, hope and consolation.
In his homily, Cona, underlined the significance of celebrating Mass in the Vatican’s Campo Teutonico, which exists on the spot where several early Christians, including Saint Peter, are believed to have been martyred by the Emperor Nero.
The sacrifice made by these martyrs “served as the seed of a new life, just as the sacrifice of those guards who with so much generosity and blessing offered their lives for the pope,” served as a source of new life for the Church, he said.
Cona focused on the aspect of sacrifice and service, noting that oftentimes, sacrifice can be interpreted “in a negative sense.”
“We have grown accustomed to seeing sacrifice as something negative,” such as a renunciation or denial,” he said, but pointed to the good sacrifices made by parents. On a personal note, he recalled the many things his own parents sacrificed for him to enter the seminary, and how despite these sacrifices, they were elated to see his own happiness and joy in the priesthood.
“Today we see how sacrifice is not seen as a mere renunciation or giving up of something,” he said, noting that sacrifice takes on new meaning when it is done for a higher cause.
“To renounce to yourself, then, for an ideal is even more important than looking to one’s own interests and defending what is yours,” Cona said, but insisted that Christians “are called to give our lives not for an ideal, but we are called to give our lives for (a person).”
This, he said, is because before the guards died in 1527, and before Peter was crucified upside down, “here was One who gave himself up out of love.” This person, he said, is not a “mythological story” or an “invented fable,” but they have a name and a face: “Jesus of Nazareth.”
“It is him that we must follow. Before all else, it is him we must imitate,” Cona said, noting that in doing so, “there is not a renunciation” in the sacrifices that are made, “but an offering.”
Cona closed by voicing hope that the guards would be able to encounter Christ through the good examples of the people they meet inside the Vatican, and through the “simplicity and dailiness of our contact.”
“Whoever sees Christ sees the Father, and whoever sees each one of us, must see Christ,” he said, praying that the guards in their service would be able to “encounter a Church that is not just an institution to protect, to defend, like you have done for 500 years, but also community, a believing community which has encountered the living Christ, which loves him and which (serves him) in daily life.”
After Mass, the wreath laying ceremony took place in the “Square of the Roman Proto-Martyrs” inside the Vatican, commemorating the guards who died in 1527.
Originally, the sostituto, or “substitute,” of the Secretariat of State, Venezuelan Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra, was set to preside over the event, however, he was unable to attend.
During the wreath laying, some of the guards present were decorated with honors in recognition of “their long and faithful service to the Holy See.”
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen