To many American eyes, they can look like courtiers at the Renaissance Faire or performers for Cirque du Soleil. In their brilliant blue, red and gold uniforms with the gleaming silver armor, neck ruffles and “conquistador” helmets with the bright ostrich plumes, they stand out like neon, even in the most opulent surroundings.
But make no mistake, these men are serious soldiers—tough, professional, rigorously trained, thoroughly focused and bound by a solemn oath that reflects centuries of tradition in the service of one purpose: protect the pope.
They are the Pontifical Swiss Guard, a ubiquitous presence inside the walls of the Vatican, and the favorite subject of millions of amateur photographers who visit St. Peter’s Square throughout the year. The smallest and oldest standing army in the world at around 135 members, the guard’s day-to-day function is largely ceremonial, but, particularly in an era of global terrorism, their foundational purpose is as clear today as it was when the guard was first formed at the beginning of the 16th century.
The oath taken by each new guard every year on May 6 is telling. With one hand grasping the flag of the Swiss Guard and the other raised with the thumb and two adjacent fingers extended (symbolizing the Holy Trinity), the recruits intone: “I swear I will faithfully, loyally and honorably serve the Supreme Pontiff Francis and his legitimate successors, and also dedicate myself to them with all my strength, sacrificing if necessary also my life to defend them. I assume this same commitment with regard to the Sacred College of Cardinals whenever the see is vacant. Furthermore I promise to the Commanding Captain and my other superiors, respect, fidelity, and obedience. This I swear! May God and our Holy Patrons assist me!”
This uncommon level of dedication is not new to the guard, and the date on which the oath is taken is heavily freighted with meaning. It is the anniversary of the Sack of Rome in 1527, when the army of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V invaded and ransacked the city. When Charles’ forces—16,000 strong—closed in on Pope Clement VII, 147 Swiss Guards died defending him. The few dozen guards that survived escorted the pontiff to safety in the nearby Castel Sant’Angelo.
Like the oath, the requirements for becoming a Swiss Guard have remained essentially unchanged since 1506 when Pope Julius II officially established the guard when he hired a group of Swiss mercenaries for protection. To become a guard a man must:
- be a Swiss citizen
- be a faithful Roman Catholic
- possess “a good moral and ethical background”
- have attended military school in Switzerland (military service is compulsory for males in Switzerland)
- be between 19 and 30 years old
- be at least 5 feet 8 inches tall (174 centimeters)
- be unmarried
- have either a professional diploma or a high school degree
Jonathan Binaghi filled all of these requirements, and for four years served as a Swiss Guard—two years longer than the standard term of enlistment. Recently retired from the guard, he is preparing to move to Orange County to marry Miranda Emde, a parishioner at St. Bonaventure Church in Huntington Beach.
Like all Swiss men, Binaghi received his initial military training in the Swiss Army, beginning at 20, the age at which all Swiss males are required to participate in military service. He received more specialized training in the Swiss Guard in such areas as security, personal protection, martial arts and weapons handling. He also was taught such essentials as crowd control, how to recognize various members of the clergy and how to act as informal greeters and sources of information for tourists at the Vatican.
Still, they are well armed and ready for any eventuality.
“A show of force is not a must for us, though,” says Binaghi, “because we are part of the first impression people have of the Vatican and the pope.”
While the tradition of papal protection is an ancient one, the guard’s weaponry is not. Each guardsman is thoroughly trained in small arms, and while many guards carry the long 15th-century halberds or wear swords at the waist, within the folds of their blousy uniforms may be holstered the most modern of automatic weapons such as the SIG P220 and the Steyr TMP machine pistol.
Many men would like to become Swiss Guards, he says, “many of them outside Switzerland,” but the inflexible requirements tend to limit the applicant pool to about 30 each year. Once accepted into the guard, the men become citizens of the Vatican, living together in barracks within the Vatican walls. Most men speak German as their first language, but they are also required to learn Italian, and many speak several languages.
For their service they are paid a tax-free salary of 15,600 euros per year ($20,200), as well as overtime, room and board.
And their uniforms are custom-tailored. They were not originally designed by Michelangelo, as is commonly believed, but, according to the Vatican website, “It is mainly thanks to Commandant Jules Repond (1910-1921)…that the Swiss Guards wear such fine dress today. After much study and research and drawing inspiration from Raffaello’s frescoes, he abolished all types of hats and introduced the simple beret worn today, which bears the soldier’s grade. Furthermore he replaced the pleated gorget or throat-piece with a plain white collar. He also improved the cuirass and had it remodeled after the original design.
“Nowadays, only the full dress-uniform is worn with a special gorget, white gloves and pale grey metal morion [helmet] with ostrich-feather plume… The colors which make the uniform so attractive are the traditional Medici blue, red and yellow, set off nicely by the white of the collar and gloves. The blue and yellow bands give a sense of lightness as they move over the red doublet and breeches. The guard’s every-day uniform is completely blue.”
Service in the guard, says Binaghi, tends to deepen a man’s faith. “When you live inside the Vatican,” he says, “you’re part of the liturgy. There’s a feeling you get inside. The men tend to become more Catholic, I think. The religious life of the guard is very important.”
And when it’s over, it’s not entirely over. Ex-guards maintain strong ties through various “alumni” groups. “The friendships that are born in the guard are very important,” says Binaghi, “because we are like brothers in arms. Every [canton] in Switzerland has its own association of the old guard, and many of them do honor service for their local bishops.”
And, he adds, the solemn oath remains.
“It’s a beautiful thing,” he says. “Young people today maybe don’t know the meaning of an oath like this one. And it’s for life.”