An interview with a Swiss Guard

by Lew Toulmin, Contributing Editor

I am fortunate to be a member (by right of descent from a 17th-century ancestor) of the oldest military organization in the Americas, the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Massachusetts, chartered in 1638. As such, I was invited to Rome in May ’06 to participate in the celebration of the 500th anniversary of the founding of the oldest military organization in the world, the famous Pontifical Swiss Guards of Vatican City.

The Swiss Guards provide protection to the Pope and can be observed standing with their 8-foot-tall halberds and 7-pound flame swords at key points in the Vatican, sometimes directing groups of visitors or briefly answering their questions.

While in Rome I obtained permission to interview one of the Guards. This was something of a coup, since the Guards are normally rather publicity shy.

The interview

Hellebardier Philipp Haas is a tall 23-year-old from St. Gallen canton in northeast Switzerland. I interviewed him in the rarely visited Swiss Guards barracks on the north side of St. Peter’s Square.

Q: How did you get interested in the Swiss Guards?
A: I first saw the Guards on television when I was five or six years old. I was fascinated by their colorful uniforms and helmets. My mother told me that the Guards are Swiss and Catholic, and I was both, so I wanted to join immediately.

Q: What was your education?
A: I did a high school equivalency apprenticeship in banking for three years.

Q: How did you qualify for the Swiss Guards?
A: I finished my banking apprenticeship, was within the age limits of 19 to 30 and completed the standard 21 weeks of military training required of all Swiss men. I am much taller than the required 1.74 meters (5'8"). I obtained a letter from my priest stating that I am a good Catholic, and I passed the 3-hour interview. The toughest part was talking about myself and my goals for the required two hours. The Guards want articulate, self-directed men. I talked and talked, and then realized only 10 minutes had passed!

Q: How many applicants are there for each place?
A: There are 30 to 40 new positions each year, and 200 to 300 applicants. But since I was commissioned a Lieutenant First Class in the Swiss Army and was the best rifle shot at the Swiss Army Officers Academy, I knew I had a very good chance.

Q: How many Guards are there?
A: Only 110. The Commandant, four other officers, a priest, six sergeants, one staff sergeant, 10 corporals and 10 vice corporals, and the rest are hellebardiers, like me. There is a separate Vatican police force.

Q: Tell me about your joining and training.
A: I joined in November 2004 for a standard 2-year initial tour of duty. I did the normal one month of training at the Vatican School of Records, where I learned the history of the Vatican and the Guards, the key people and how to recognize them, and the standing orders. I also studied self-defense, a customized blend of karate and judo, that is very practical, is taught by an old karate master and was developed especially for the Guards. We can also take courses in Italian and English.

Q: What languages do you speak?
A: English, French, Italian, German and Swiss-German.

Q: What about firearms training?
A: Since we have all served in the Swiss Army, we have all had training in rifles and pistols, both of which are sometimes carried by the Guards.

Q: Tell me about your initial service.
A: For the first seven months I did “guard of honor” service, carrying an 8-foot halberd and standing at attention or parade rest. In this role I was not allowed to talk to outsiders, just stand. Only after seven months are we allowed at a post where we interact with the public. After one year I took the “St. Anne’s Gate” exam in Vatican procedures and Italian language, and then at 18 months’ service I took another exam which allowed me to command other Guards at certain posts.

Q: How were the Swiss Guards founded?
A: Before he became Pontiff, Pope Julius II (the patron of Michelangelo) was fighting in a battle and had his life saved by Swiss soldiers who gave their lives for him. He was so impressed that when he became Pope he sent an emissary to Switzerland to recruit a unit of Guards. One-hundred-and-fifty Guards arrived on Jan. 22, 1506, and our organization has served continuously ever since.

Q: What was the most dangerous thing that ever happened to you?
A: I was on duty and a madman in a car intentionally tried to run me over. Another Guard and I jumped out of the way at the last second and managed to slam shut a gate so the madman couldn’t drive away and escape. He was arrested by the Vatican Police and taken away.

Q: How much are you paid?
A: 1,300 euros per month (about $1,600). We make six euros per hour for overtime after 150 hours per month of work. We pay no tax, get free accommodation and eat free good Swiss-Italian food cooked by Polish sisters. So we do all right.

Q: What is your work schedule?
A: We have a “support day,” where we guard from morning to afternoon then have the night off. Next we do a “squad day,” where we work all day and stand guard at night also. Then we usually get a half day off or sometimes a full day. We are required to attend Mass at least once a week.

Q: Do you provide personal bodyguard protection to the Pope, and do you guard the Sistine Chapel?
A: Only sergeants guard the Pope personally. Swiss Guards used to protect the Sistine Chapel, but now that is the responsibility of museum guards.

Q: What are your quarters in the barracks like?
A: I share a modern, 2-story barracks flat with another Guard. We have cable TV and Internet service but must share a bathroom with several other Guards.

Q: Our Artillery Company was honored to march into St. Peter’s Square yesterday and participate in the Swiss Guards’ impressive swearing-in ceremony. Tell me about that.
A: During the ceremony, each new Guardsman grasps the flag of the Swiss Guards and swears fidelity to the unit. He swears to “faithfully, honestly and honorably” serve the Pope and to lay down his life if necessary in the Pope’s defense. This is the first year that the ceremony took place in St. Peter’s Square; normally it is held in a smaller, private square.

Q: Have you met the Pope?
A: Yes. After my swearing-in, my parents and I had a private audience (with Pope John Paul II). And at Palace Gondolfo, the Pope’s summer residence, Pope Benedict XVI approached me when I was on guard duty and asked me what issues were on the minds of young Swiss Catholics. Then he asked me a surprising thing. He said, “I’ve been Pope a few months now. What do you think of the job I’m doing?” I was kind of stunned, but I managed to stammer, “I’m very happy with your work.”

Q: What do you want to do in the future?
A: I will finish my two years’ service in November 2006. I could sign up for an indefinite extension and try to become an officer, but I think that like 95% of hellebardiers I will return to Switzerland. I will go to St. Gallen University and eventually get a master’s in banking or finance and pursue a career in banking. My girlfriend is from Ohio, so perhaps I will end up in the USA.

Q: At a memorial service the other day, the priest likened the Swiss Guards to St. Sebastian, pierced by the arrows of innumerable questions. What is the most common question?
A: Whether our colorful uniforms were designed by Michelangelo. The answer is “No,” even though many guidebooks say otherwise.* Our uniforms changed over the centuries, then in the early 1900s they were restored to the original Medici colors and general early design. We also wear a simpler blue uniform on nonceremonial occasions.

Q: What is the strangest question you were ever asked?
A: I was standing guard at the entrance to St. Peter’s. A tourist went in, looked around for a while and then came out and asked, “Where is St. Peter’s?”

Q: What was your most touching moment as a Swiss Guard?
A: I was one of the hellebardiers assigned to guard the body of Pope John Paul II. Former presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton came to pay their respects and stood beside me. Over three million pilgrims came to Rome and tens of thousands of mourners filed by me, weeping openly for the Holy Father, but we had to hold our feelings in. I thought then and think now that Julius II was right to choose us Swiss as his guards. We are quiet, professional and dedicated to our duty. I hope there will be Swiss Guards here 500 years from now.

Toulmin: Amen to that.

*According to the Vatican webpage, Michelangelo was not involved in the original design of the Swiss Guards uniform. When the Guards first were hired by Julius II, it is likely they wore the Swiss cross or the Papal keys embroidered on their breasts. Sometime later they began wearing the Medici colors in a design depicted by the Renaissance painter Raffaello Sanzio in one of his paintings. — L.T.