The 'world's smallest army' protecting the Pope in Iraq

The Swiss Guards are trained in the latest combat methods despite their traditional appearance

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When Pope Francis arrives in Iraq on March 5, he will be accompanied by a unique security detail. Known as the world's smallest army and always visible near the pope with eccentric, brightly-coloured uniforms, the origins of the Swiss Guard date back more than 500 years.

Late in the Middle Ages, it became tradition to recruit Swiss mercenaries as special military units because of the Swiss reputation for producing highly professional soldiers.

In 1506, Pope Julius II established the Pontifical Swiss Guard, making it among the oldest military units in continuous operation.

This colourful combat unit may practise traditions that are centuries old, but their equipment and training must be constantly updated to meet new challenges and keep up with the latest developments in security techniques.

In addition to the swords and halberds, the Swiss Guards have tear gas and firearms for use in emergency situations.

Primarily, the Swiss Guard is responsible for protecting the pope and the Apostolic Palace and carry out its duties under the motto Acriter et Fideliter, which translates into English as "fiercely and faithfully".

The Swiss Guard, with the Pontifical Gendarmerie, the former police force of the Vatican city, are responsible for ensuring the safety of the pope within and outside the Vatican and for accompanying him on all his public engagements.

Originally a contingent of 110 men, the Swiss Guard increased its numbers to 135 guards in 2015 in response to increased demand for their services.

The guards also carry out ceremonial duties as honour guards during papal liturgies and other Vatican events, such as receptions for heads of state and monarchs, and audiences.

A unique uniform 

The most common Swiss Guard uniform is the blue duty uniform, but they are mostly associated with their red, yellow and blue striped ensemble. These colourful costumes are called Gala uniforms and are worn when guards take up more ceremonial duties.

The Gala uniform has been worn by Swiss Guards since 1910. In keeping with tradition, the ostrich-feathered morion helmets worn by Swiss Guards still hold the family symbol of Pope Julius II, the oak tree.

Who can become a Swiss Guard?

The Swiss Guards
The Swiss Guards

Each recruit must be a single male of Swiss citizenship. They must measure at least 1.73m tall and be between the ages of 19 and 30. They must be educated and hold either a high school degree or a professional diploma.

Each recruit must be a devoted Roman Catholic and their application must be endorsed by their local parish priest.

Basic military training is completed in Switzerland, followed by a five-week induction training course in Rome.

After this first training period Swiss soldiers are called Halberdier, in reference to the primary weapons – halberds – used by Swiss mercenaries in the 14th and 15th centuries.

When training is complete, Halberdiers are sworn in and they and their families are invited to a private audience with the pope.

Once a Halberdier’s contract begins, which is a minimum of 25 months, they are required to attend Italian language classes.

By the end of their first year of service, the soldiers are ready to take up guard duty at the main gates of the Vatican.

The Guard's May Ceremony

The swearing-in ceremony for new guards is traditionally held in May, commemorating the 147 Swiss Guards guards killed in battle with the Holy Roman Empire in 1527 as they defended Pope Clement VII during the sack of Rome. Because of their act of heroism the pope was able to safely flee through hidden tunnels emerging from the Vatican.

But because of the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in Italy in early 2020, the ceremony was postponed to October 4, where the 38 new guards were sworn in.

It was also a proud moment for the Filipino Catholic community because it was the first time a soldier with Filipino origins became a papal guard. Filipino-Swiss Lt Vincent Luthi was one of the 38 new members sworn in.