Rome is one of those cities that grabs hold of you and doesn’t let you go.
As an Australian traveling here many times throughout my teenage years and into my twenties it was a cultural, food and fashion mecca. I finally answered the call and moved here just over 10 years ago and began working in the Vatican for L’Osservatore Romano. This is a small miracle considering there are only four people who work for the weekly English edition of the newspaper. At the time I was studying theology at the Angelicum (the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas) in the Roman suburb of Monti overlooking the Roman Forum.
I began working in different areas inside the Vatican, from the Holy See Press Office to the Pontifical Swiss Guard. Each morning, as I walked to work through the Vatican gate at the Church of St. Anne, a handsome young Swiss Guard would salute me with a smile and a sweet word whenever he was on duty. Today I’m married to that Swiss Guard and living inside the Vatican.
Ironically, back when I was working for L’Osservatore Romano, my dear friend and colleague Anna asked me, “Did you know that to become a Vatican citizen you have to marry a Swiss Guard?” I was intrigued by her statement but dismissed the thought almost immediately. I was too busy worrying about how I was going to stay in Italy after my student visa expired.
Now my friends now ask me, how does one date a Swiss Guard, let alone marry one? They all seemed so aloof and spoke to each other in their Swiss-German dialect, of which I understood nothing 10 years ago and not much more now. I was content admiring them from afar in their striking Renaissance-style uniforms. And admire them I did, because I saw their hard work, dedication and faith up close. During papal Masses and audiences and at entrances to the Apostolic Palace, I watched the guards unflinchingly hold their posts for hours at a time, when I was having difficulty even sitting still. Despite the long and irregular hours, in clearly not the most comfortable of uniforms (hot in summer and cold in winter), they still mustered the compassion and empathy to direct the daily throngs of tourists to the Vatican Museums, pose with children for innumerous photos and volunteer regularly to feed the poor and homeless of Rome. I could only watch in awe.
Nearing the end of my first year at L’Osservatore Romano, I was blessed to be offered a ticket to the annual Swiss Guard swearing-in ceremony. On May 6 I watched as all the recruits who had joined the Guard in the previous 12 months dressed up in their full gala uniform, body armor and helmet, and made their oath to protect the pope unto death if necessary. It is a deeply moving military ceremony that leaves a lasting impression, particularly if you know they have been making the same oath since 1506, when Pope Julius II called the first loyal and fearsome Swiss Guards to Rome. For an Australian it was, and still is, a little overwhelming being surrounded by all the pomp and tradition of 500 years of the Swiss Guard.
This year marks the fourth year that I have attended the ceremony as the wife of a Swiss Guard, an honor bestowed on very few women. There are currently only 15 Swiss Guard wives. What a privilege to sit in the front row and watch the young recruits solemnly swear their allegiance on the very day that 147 Swiss Guards died defending the life of Pope Clement VII in 1527.
Before each took his turn to make the declaration before God and all those present, the Swiss Guard Commander Colonel Christoph Graf gave thanks to the guards for accepting their vocation to travel to Rome in order to protect the pope and asked their parents to pray that their sons are up to the challenge of being a Swiss Guard. Then the Swiss Guard Chaplain, Don Thomas Widmer welcomed the 32 new guards and asked them to remember each day as they put on their uniform that the sword should remind them of the spiritual battle for what is good and true. The Swiss Guard band played a musical interlude which included the rousing Swiss national hymn. Then, as every year, the guards were called on one-by-one to march up to the flag-bearer. Each man grasped the flag with his left hand, held high his right hand with three fingers out – symbolizing the Father, Son and Holy Spirit – and made this oath:
I swear I will faithfully, loyally and honorably serve the Supreme Pontiff Francis and his legitimate successors, and dedicate myself to them with all my strength, sacrificing if necessary also my life to defend them. I assume this same commitment with regard to the Sacred College of Cardinals whenever the See is vacant.
Furthermore I promise to the Commanding Captain and my other superiors, respect, fidelity and obedience. This I swear! May God and our Holy Patrons assist me!
This year I sat directly in front of where the soon-to-be guards made their final turn before reaching the flag, noting the adrenalin running through each of them and praying that they wouldn’t falter at any stage of the ceremony. Afterward, as the Swiss Guard band played, leading the triumphant march of all the guards out of the Courtyard of San Damaso, I clapped and cheered as loudly as anyone, so happy for them and so very proud to be part of the Pontifical Swiss Guard family.