What does the Swiss Guard actually do?

Answers to your questions about the news.
June 6 2007 6:36 PM

What Does the Swiss Guard Actually Do?

Don't let the ostrich feathers fool you.

Swiss Guard. Click image to expand.
The Swiss Guard

As Pope Benedict XVI passed through St. Peter's Square during his weekly Wednesday audience, a man jumped over the barrier and apparently tried to climb aboard the pope's jeep. This video footage shows the papal security detail pouncing on the man while a member of the Swiss Guard stood by and watched. What do the Swiss Guards actually do?

Protect the pope. While the Swiss Guard has many ceremonial responsibilities—guarding Vatican checkpoints, standing sentry in the Apostolic Palace, appearing at celebratory masses and other events—their ultimate job is to keep the pope out of harm's way, even if that means taking a bullet for him. Judging from the barrier-vaulting video, it might look like the Swiss Guard was doing a poor job of defending the pope's life. In fact, it was on the case: Two of the men who rushed to hold down the intruder were Swiss Guard officers in plainclothes—the commander and a high-ranking officer. (A pair of undercover Swiss Guard officers accompanies the pope whenever he travels.) The other men in suits are most likely members of the Vatican security forces, or gendarmeria, and possibly the Italian secret service. Meanwhile, the uniformed guard from the footage appears to be manning the route, but not as part of the security entourage.

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That's not to say the uniformed guard couldn't have interfered. Swiss Guardsmen (yes, they must be Swiss, and, yes, they must be men) are trained in hand-to-hand combat. They also learn to use various weapons like the halberd, a spear-axe combo for which the halberdiers—the Swiss Guard equivalent of privates—are named. (These pikes were great for knocking knights off their horses. Against modern firepower, not so much.) Guardsmen also know how to use standardissue SIG Sauer 9 mm pistols and the H&K submachine gun, although these days they don't carry those weapons—at least not conspicuously. They carried rifles until the 1970s, when Pope Paul VI reorganized the papal forces.

When Julius II founded the Papal Swiss Guard back in the 16th century, defending the pope wasn't such a safe job. In 1527, three-quarters of the Swiss forces were killed during the sack of Rome. Then in the 19th century, attacks on the pope increased as Italy was becoming unified, and the Swiss Guard had to disperse crowds with gunfire. But in modern times, being a Swiss Guard isn't too dangerous. Attempted assaults on the pope are extremely rare—an assassin shot John Paul II in 1981—and pepper spray is usually enough to immobilize Vatican intruders. The Swiss Guard did face tragedy in 1998, however, when one of the halberdiers shot the newly appointed Swiss Guard commander and his wife.

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Explainer thanks Dr. Robert Royal of the Faith and Reason Institute.

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.