VATICAN CITY - As people in Rome say, "While popes pass on, the Swiss Guard remains."
Starting next year, the pope's personal guard, whose colorful uniforms and antiquated weaponry fascinate Vatican visitors, will celebrate 500 years of almost uninterrupted service to 42 successive pontiffs.
The guard plans to mark the historic anniversary with a special stamp series put out jointly by the Vatican and Switzerland, and a number of events. The highlight will be a springtime march from Switzerland to the Eternal City by veterans of the tiny army, recreating the arrival of 150 Swiss mercenaries in Rome on Jan. 22, 1506, to do battle for Pope Julius II.
A new book on the Swiss Guards, for the first time written by an insider, Sgt. Christian Richard, came out earlier this month to coincide with the anniversary.
The coffee-table book traces the history of the guard up to its present service under Pope Benedict XVI.
Popular legend has it that Michelangelo designed the guards' blue- and yellow-bloomered uniform. But Richard says a Swiss Guard commander dreamed up the outfits at the beginning of the 20th century.
"Michelangelo had lots of talents, but he wasn't a tailor," the author said at the book launch in the guards' Vatican barracks.
The book also documents one of the corps' darkest moments: the May 1998 slaying of the guard commander Alois Estermann. The same day he was named commander by Pope John Paul II, Estermann and his wife were shot to death in their Vatican apartment. The Vatican said a disgruntled young corporal, whose body was also found in the apartment, killed them both, then shot himself.
In 1981 as a young captain, Estermann had tried to protect John Paul from a Turkish would-be assassin. When shots rang out in St. Peter's Square during a public audience, Estermann jumped onto the open-air vehicle carrying John Paul to shield his body, but the pope had already been seriously wounded.
The contemporary Swiss Guard is made up of 110 guards ranging from the present commander, Col. Elmar Theodore Mader, to the enlisted men known as halberdiers for the axe-like cutting blade mounted on a wooden pole they carry when on duty.
Following the tradition set by the first troops, each member must be a Swiss citizen and a Catholic. Recruits must be at least 5 feet 8 inches tall, and minimum enrollment is two years. Officers can marry.
While the Vatican is guarded by Italian security forces and plainclothes police, the pope's safety is the Swiss Guards' personal responsibility.
Halberdiers protect the main entrances to the papal palace and stand guard in front of the papal apartments.
As John Paul was dying last spring, Mader himself took up watch at the papal apartments. When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger emerged from the conclave on April 19 as Benedict XVI, the Swiss Guards were standing in ceremony outside the Sistine Chapel to greet their new boss.
Guards flank the pope at all his public appearances, and shedding their colorful uniforms, accompany him on foreign trips.
The guard says it gets three times as many applicants as there are openings every year. New recruits are always sworn in on May 6 to mark the anniversary of the 1527 Sack of Rome during which the troops of Emperor Charles V massacred almost the entire guard on the steps of St. Peter's Basilica. Pope Clement VII escaped unharmed but the emperor forced him to disband the army, which was recreated by his successor, Pope Paul III.
Some Swiss Guards go on to become priests. According to Mader, two former guards are currently studying for the priesthood in Rome seminaries.
"Everyone joins for different reasons, a new culture, a new language a new experience. But faith is always the underlying factor," Mader said.