Changing of the Guard, Swiss-Style
Are you a Swiss male, under 30, taller than 174cm (5ft 8.5in), a practicing Catholic, with military training? Willing to remain single and only permitted to marry under certain circumstances, while living in shared accommodation with colleagues? Excited at the prospect of a 1,300 euro a month salary, roughly the equivalent of an au-pair in Switzerland? Then the Swiss Guard wants you!
It's that time of year again. On May 6, new recruits to the Swiss Guard were sworn in at Vatican City. They have joined the ranks of one of the most exclusive regiments on earth, one that has existed to protect and serve the Pope since the 15th century. Mock them for their jester-like attire or their silent stare, but the hardworking members of the "smallest army in the world" sacrifice more than just their fashion dignity to protect the man, and Church, they love.
While the Swiss are now known for their neutrality, they were at one time famous for their brutal mercenaries. Up until it was outlawed in 1927, fierce young men with few prospects in the once desperately poor Alpine nation made their fortunes as soldiers-for-hire throughout Europe. With Switzerland now in the top rankings worldwide for standard of living, those willing to battle for a living are a rare breed. For young men who meet the strict recruitment requirements, only one branch of the elite squad remains active--the Pontifical Swiss Guard of the Holy See, stationed at the Vatican.
Despite their visible swords, a Swiss Guard's role today more closely resembles that of a highly skilled bodyguard. Since the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II in 1981, the guards have seen additional training in hand combat and small weapons, leaving some of their purely ceremonial duties behind.
This week, a new exhibition of photographs by Fabio Mantegna featuring the Swiss Guard opened at the Vatican Museum. It's a rare glimpse into the professional and private lives of the soldiers themselves, made possible by Pope Francis' request for more Vatican transparency. The "Life of a Swiss Guard. A Private View" exhibition runs through June 11, 2016, at which point it will tour to other countries.