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More than a fly on the wall: Former Swiss Guard pens memoir of John Paul II

Photo Courtesy of Mario Enzler

John Burger - published on 05/04/20

Mario Enzler weaves stories of former pope with lessons he learned as a young man in his service.

May 18 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Pope St. John Paul II. Thousands of people around the world will be able to look back on a time when they personally met with the man who was pope from 1978 to 2005, one of the longest pontificates in history.

Mario Enzler is recalling the pope in a special way. A former Swiss Guard, Enzler served in the Vatican from 1989 until 1993. In a new book, I Served a Saint: Reflections of a Swiss Guard in honor of the centenary of the birth of St. John Paul II, Enzler weaves his reminiscences of encounters with John Paul with lessons he learned from the Polish pontiff. The book, published by Newman House Press, has a foreword by papal biographer George Weigel.

Photo Courtesy of Mario Enzler

Enzler was not a typical Swiss Guard, since he was not born in Switzerland, but in Bergamo, in northern Italy. After his service, he also worked as a financial advisor at the Vatican. Eventually moving to the United States, he and his wife and children settled in New Hampshire, where he founded a classical curriculum high school.

He also began teaching at the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. While there, he noticed the need and demand for clergy to learn practical business and managerial skills. To answer this need, Enzler in 2017 created the Master of Science in Ecclesial Administration and Management (M.E.A.M.), an interdisciplinary program that connects the resources of the Busch School, School of Theology and Religious Studies, and School of Canon Law in order to cultivate the talents of its participants so that they can be more effective shepherds.

Enzler spoke with Aleteia about his encounters at the Vatican with Pope St. John Paul II.

How did you come to be a Swiss Guard and serve Pope John Paul II?

I was born and raised in Bergamo, in northern Italy. When I finished graduate school, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. It was my dad who told me I need some sort of structure in my life, and in order to get that I should join an army. I say an army, because being born in Italy, I had Italian citizenship, but because my dad was Swiss I also had a Swiss passport. After looking into it, the Swiss opportunity sounded better to me. And I really didn’t care about having an Italian passport, because my Italianity is inclusive in the way I am and the way I talk and communicate.

So I ended up joining the Swiss Army.

While I was in the army, I got approached by somebody saying “In Rome they’re looking for people, and we believe you fit the profile.” They were talking about the Swiss Guard. I said, “I know very well who the Swiss Guard are, but I don’t picture myself dressed up as a clown, standing still for hours without talking to anybody.” The person started laughing and said, “Well, that’s just a little bit of the job description of what a Swiss Guard is, but first and foremost, the Swiss Guard, since January 22, 1506, which is when they were established by Julius II, have carried a noble title, and it’s three Latin words.” My undergraduate degree is in classics, so when he said Latin words, I said, “Oh, tell me those words.”

Defensores Ecclesiae libertatis — Defenders of the Church’s freedom.” I said, “Wait a minute. I didn’t even know that anybody wants to take away the Church’s freedom. Why? I need to know more about this.”

So you joined, obviously. How was it? What was your first encounter with John Paul?

What transformed my mind and heart was the first real encounter I had with Pope John Paul II. I was in the apostolic palace, and they told me he was going to walk by, so you have to follow the protocol of securing the place, closing the door. You block the elevator so nobody comes up to the third floor. When he walked by, I was at attention, and he stopped. And he looked at me and put his hand forward like he wanted to shake my hand. So I came out of attention and grabbed his hand, and he said to me, “You must be a new one,” and I said “Yes, Your Holiness,” and introduced myself. And then he grabbed my hand also with his left hand, so all of a sudden he sandwiched my hand with both his hands and looked at me and said, “Well, thank you for choosing to serve the one who serves.” And then he left.

That day I started realizing, “This is bigger than I thought. This man is definitely different than anyone I ever met. What did he mean by that?” I think he read my heart in a nanosecond. He knew exactly what he had to say in order for me to hear his voice.

Photo Courtesy of Mario Enzler

There was a lot going on in the world during the time you served, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Oh yes. I was in the apostolic palace when [Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev came. I saw [Polish Solidarity leader and subsequent Polish President] Lech Walesa come more than once, incognito, maybe for a meal.

Going back to when his name started coming out during the conclave [that elected Karol Wojtyla as pope in 1978], I suspect that he saw that his leadership could have helped his native Poland — and all of Eastern Europe — to come out from [Soviet] tyranny and so on. He was a political mind, extremely astute. But always focused on the Eucharist. I don’t think he ever led anything by emotion. He always led by intellect.

Also, I was there during Operation Desert Storm. When [Gen. Norman] Schwarzkopf [led the invasion of Iraqi-occupied Kuwait]. …It was a Wednesday audience. I had just heard on my radio that there was the attack. When the pope and Msgr. Dziwisz came out from the audience, they had to cross where I was, in the apostolic palace, and Dziwisz asked me “Any news?”

“Yes, they attacked.”

And he turned and told the pope. And I saw a huge suffering come across His Holiness’ face.

The pope always had people for lunch. Sometimes it was the last audience he had, and they would go from the second floor up to the third floor for lunch. If they came exclusively for lunch, they would have to come through us, and we would have to give them access through a service elevator, so they could go straight up into the apartment. I was able to see many people coming for lunch, who at that time I wouldn’t have given it much thought.

Any visitors stand out in your memory?

He had a very close friend named Wanda Półtawska, who had been in [the Nazi’s Ravensbrück] concentration camp: the Germans tried all kinds of poisons on her. She was very close to the pope. She and her husband, sometimes with their children and grandchildren, would spend all summer [at Castel Gandolfo]. I saw the two of them interacting. I think that with Wanda he had a special connection. I was privileged to witness that — this relationship with a woman he respected and cared for, and she was a very humble woman who went through a lot of suffering.

The relationship was like brother and sister. They respected and loved one another through Christ.

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