Their bright colors hide true military grit ... but also a deepening spiritual life.
Every 25th of December, the men of the Swiss Pontifical Guard meet for a Christmas dinner together, “as a family.” Indeed, there is no question of them returning to their home towns at the end of December: the protection of the Sovereign Pontiff has to be intensified at this time of year. I.MEDIA met with Philippe Morard, vice-commander of this military force where faith is at the heart of the mission.
His voice is measured; his tone is calm. However, you can feel great self-control in this young officer, 45 years old, who has been one of the pope’s soldiers for two years, since the day in January 2015 when the departing Commander gave him a Swiss army knife and asked him, “Why not you?“ At the time, he did not fulfill all the conditions to answer the call. Philippe Morard is over 40; after having served two years as a halberdier, he pursued a career in the Swiss police force and he has three children. Which means that if he applies for the position, it will be a “family” application.
Eleven months later, he landed again at the Vatican, in the Pontifical Swiss Guard, with a certainty in mind: “There is no mission more noble than to serve the Church here at the Holy See.” In fact, it is not only the population of the Vatican which is placed under the protection of these Swiss soldiers, but the universal Church, in accordance with the dual nature of the Vatican, both City-State and the home of a subject of international law: the Holy See.
A unique opportunity for the faith
This shows the extent of the responsibility of these soldiers in whom an untrained tourist’s eye only sees a bit of folklore. In fact, the Swiss guards are well trained, says their Vice Commander. Under the uniform inspired by Michelangelo hide formidable soldiers prepared for the changes in the world around them. Especially with a pope who does not want to be kept in a display case but who wants to come into contact with “his” people.
But that’s not all. Their military commitment, the long hours spent keeping watch in the corridors of the Apostolic Palace, are also a time to self-reflect. Like a “pendulum,” says Philippe Morard. The young people arrive with powerful military baggage. On the religious level, on the other hand, only Baptism is required. But after a while the ratio balances out: their spiritual formation is developed through weekly Mass, confession and talks with the chaplain, Don Thomas. This is a unique opportunity for them, says the Vice Commander.
Swiss discretion at the service of the pope
Morard is also very attentive to the educational dimension of his role as an officer. Teaching his soldiers patience, for example, to put up with the peculiar rhythm of the Vatican – which has eternity as its timepiece – when the young people would like to change all the unwritten rules of the papal city.
The other value embodied by this Military Corps is discretion. An eminently Swiss virtue. It is exercised especially in regards to the pope, the mission being not to “overload” him with their presence.
Personally, Philippe Morard “cannot get used” to the feeling of living historical moments, contemplating history unfolding before his eyes. When, for example, heads of state make the quasi-obligatory visit to the Vatican and parade through to consult the moral authority embodied by the pontiff.
Obviously, the counterpart is a certain “self-denial”, he comments soberly. The commitment is intense; the schedules are heavy. Weekends are often taken up by work, major religious holidays require a greater mobilization of the 110 guards. So, there are rewards, such as this exchange of gifts on the evening of December 25, as a family …
And then there is the memory celebrated every year of May 6, 1527, of the sack of Rome when 147 Swiss guards died defending Pope Clement VII. Every year on that day the “new” are sworn in. They too swear to be ready “to lose their lives to defend the Holy Father.” Not a negligible commitment …