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Farewell to a Swiss Guard who served three popes: his last interview

2010-07-28

Right here in this same square, 500 years ago, the world’s smallest army pledged its loyalty to the head of the Catholic Church.

Back then, terrorism didn’t exist and driving in a Popemobile had yet to replace being carried aloft on a chair.  Yet, as veteran Swiss Guard Josef Schmidt recalls, the pontiff still faced significant threats.

Josef Schmidt
Former Swiss Guard

“It all began with Pope Julius II, who asked the Swiss government for soldiers to protect him and to accompany him when he went outside the Vatican.  The canton of Lucerne sent 189 guards and they arrived on January 22, 1506.”

It’s been 500 years and the Swiss Guard is still protecting the pope. They sustained one of their biggest losses in the 16th century, when the papal guard whisked Clement VII away from the apostolic palace… through a secret passageway to Castel Sant’Angelo; a refuge for pontiffs under seige.

Josef Schmidt
Former Swiss Guard

“While defending Pope Clement VII from the German troupes, 147 Swiss guards died. The 49 who survived stayed on as the Pope’s body guards.”

Schmidt served as corporal, sergeant, and lieutenant under 3 different popes over a span of 15 years.

Josef Schmidt
Former Swiss Guard

“For almost 8 years, I served Pius XII, then John XXIII and in the later years it was Paul VI.”

There are 110 soldiers in the Swiss Guard. Over the centuries, their mission has remained the same.

Josef Schmidt
Former Swiss Guard

“First of all, they have to guard the Pope’s apartment, night and day.  Secondly, they have to perform ‘extraordinary services’ which are private and public audiences with the pope.  In those days, the Pope didn’t travel, the longest trip was to Castelgandolfo.”

Each guard makes about $1,500 a month, and gets free accommodation within the Vatican city.  Their motivation goes beyond the material…

Josef Schmidt
Former Swiss Guard
“Some of the people that serve in the Swiss Guard have a complete conversion! Guarding the Vicar of Christ is something priceless.”

While most Swiss Guards look like they’ve walked out of the Middle Ages, others wear  plain clothes and carry automatic weapons.  They’re an elite unit, with both ceremonial and military duties.
 
Josef Schmidt
Former Swiss Guard

“All of us have trained in the Swiss army, which is no walk in the park. Plus, in the Swiss Guard, there’s a different tone; the training and discipline are very rigorous, but naturally in a healthy way.”

Seven hundred Swiss Guards will mark their 500 years alongside the Pope starting in April when they begin a march from Switzerland to the Vatican.  They’re scheduled to arrive on May 6.  For the Papal army, it’s a true march through time.