ROME – The world’s smallest army, which in recent years has faced difficulty filling all its slots for new recruits, has created a new media relations position in a bid to yield better publicity and attract fresh members.
In a Sept. 1 communique, the Pontifical Swiss Guard announced it is expanding its presence in Switzerland “by creating a press office and a contact point for authorities.”
The man tapped for the job is Stefan Wyer, originally from Visp and who previously worked as an independent business consultant for communication and politics.
Wyer will report directly to the Commander of the Swiss Guard, Christoph Graf, who was appointed to the post by Pope Francis in 2015, and he will also work closely with the head of the Swiss Guard Information and Recruitment Office, Bernhard Messmer.
After Pope Francis’s decision in 2018 to increase the number of Swiss Guards from 110 to 135, “the need to hire new recruits has increased,” the communique said, saying the process of recruitment “must be supported by a more active public relations work.”
According to the communique, the Guards’ new public relations’ push will include the creation of a direct point of contact with Swiss Media, and better publication of the activities and entities attached to the Guard.
Over the past few years, the Swiss Guard has attempted to change the perception that those who enlist are merely another tourist attraction at the Vatican, standing with their distinctive halberds in hand while foreigners snap selfies beside their colorful uniforms and feathered hats.
Instead, the Guard has sought to emphasize the military and weapons’ training members are required to have, and the fact that they accompany the pope everywhere he goes, including on foreign trips.
New recruits are sworn in each year on May 6, marking the date in 1527 when 147 Swiss Guards lost their lives defending Pope Clement VII during the sack of Rome. Only 42 guards survived the massacre, and the swearing-in date was selected specifically as a reminder of what they must be willing to sacrifice when pledging their oath to protect and serve the pope.
The Guard – whose members pledge to “faithfully, loyally, and honorably” serve and protect the pope and, if necessary, give their lives for him – keep watch over the pope at his residence in the Vatican’s Domus Sanctae Marthae guesthouse, and they also provide security at public events and for visits of heads of state and other dignitaries to the Vatican.
Conditions for joining the Guard
In order to be accepted in the Swiss Guard, recruits must meet a list of specific criteria.
They must be male, a Swiss citizen, a practicing Catholic, single, and between the ages of 19-30. Young men who enter must commit for at least 26 months and they must also be athletic, in good health, and stand at least 5 feet 8 inches tall with an “unblemished reputation.”
New recruits are required to pass a series of health exams in order to be accepted, including a psychophysical test evaluating their ability to handle stress. They must also have completed the Swiss Army Recruit School, giving them familiarity with both the military and how to form camaraderie in close quarters.
Training for new guards lasts two months and is divided into two parts.
Since 2016, new members have undergone intensive training with the police in the Ticino canton of Switzerland, after having completed their medical exams in Rome.
The training courses in Ticino include studying certain aspects of psychology and law, as well as tactical military training and lessons in other areas such as fighting fires, CPR, shooting, self-defense with “restrictive and containment techniques,” as well as sports and measures for personal safety.
In the second part of their training, Swiss Guard recruits return to the Vatican to learn more practical skills, including Italian language lessons and getting to know the layout of Vatican City itself, and the people they will encounter on a daily basis.
Their knowledge of the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace and the people employed in each of the Vatican’s offices are tested on a weekly basis.
New recruits also undergo further military training exercises and conduct drills for marching, alone and as a team, and on use of the halberd they carry while on duty.
The guards are expected to practice “continuous learning” throughout their time in the tiny army, and undergo several checks and tests throughout their time in the Vatican, including formal language exams, and an annual athletic test.
In recent years, there has been chatter within the Swiss Guard about the possibility of allowing women to join its ranks.
The main reason women are not allowed, at least since the beginning of the new millennium, is not gender, but housing, as the current barracks are small and cramped shared spaces, with just 12 single rooms for the entire 135-man army, making the addition of women into such tight quarters problematic.
Last year the Vatican unveiled plans to renovate the barracks, with a projected completion date of 2026, to mark the 520th anniversary of the founding of the Swiss Guard.
The plans include a much-needed expansion that is aimed not only at improving the life of the current guards, but which will also allow the possibility of allowing women to enlist in the future.
The new barracks are scheduled to be formally inaugurated May 6, 2027 and include floor plans for 123 single rooms spread out over four floors.
Currently, the building is 150 years old and requires near-constant repair, making the need for updates and modernization urgent, and with the decision to increase the number of guards to 135, there has been increased pressure for more space.
A Switzerland-based architectural firm has designed the new barracks, in keeping with current building and safety codes, as well as environmental efficiency standards. The total cost is estimated around $60 million.
Whether any of these efforts and the new media push will be successful in drawing new recruits is yet to be seen, but in the meantime, the Guard appears to be doing everything it can to pique interest for what is arguably one of the most unique military experiences in the world.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen