The Truth About The Vatican's Army

In perhaps one of the world's most unusual military relationships, much of Vatican City is protected by a special army known as the Pontifical Swiss Guards. The members of the Swiss Guards are citizens of Switzerland, but they aren't part of the Swiss military. They are a distinct and separate group that answers to the pope, and this small army has pledged to protect him at all costs. This force has been keeping watch over the head of the Catholic Church for centuries. This special arrangement between Swiss soldiers and the pope dates back to 1506, according to Switzerland's Federal Department of Foreign Affairs. That year, 150 men came to the Vatican to serve Pope Julius II. And remarkably, the guards' ceremonial uniforms date back to the Renaissance era, with their brightly colored tunics, stiff ruffled collars, and metal helmets decked out with feathers (via Britannica).

Since their formation, the Swiss Guards have proved time and time again their commitment to their mission. In 1527, 147 guards, out of 189, died to protect Pope Clement VII when Rome was attacked. The guards have continued to serve all of the Popes that followed. They were on hand to protect Pope John Paul II when someone attempted to assassinate him during an appearance in St. Peter's Square in 1981. This case was actually handled by the Italian authorities because St. Peter's Square is under the jurisdiction of Italian police (via the Archdiocese of Baltimore).

It's hard to join the Pontifical Swiss Guard

Being a member of the Pontifical Swiss Guard isn't a job for just anyone. There are strict requirements for becoming a Swiss Guard. First and foremost, a Swiss Guard needs to be a Swiss Roman Catholic male (via Britannica). Each guard must be at least 5 feet 8 inches tall and between the ages of 19 to 30. He must also be single and have a high school diploma. And to better perform their duties, they go through Swiss military basic training. Each recruit also has to be a whiz at languages, according to Switzerland's Federal Department of Foreign Relations. Orders are given in German, and knowing Italian is an essential part of the gig as well.

New members of the Swiss Guard have a special swearing-in ceremony on May 6, the anniversary of the deadly 1527 battle. In 2021, 34 new soldiers were welcomed by Pope Francis into the Pontifical Swiss Guard. They all pledged to "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" (via the Catholic Telegraph).