'Will you commit body and soul for the pope's security?'

At first sight, it could be a job ad for a company, a charity or even an army playing up its peacekeeping role: “Looking for something different? Enjoy contact with people from all over the world?”

But there’s a giveaway: “Will you commit body and soul for the security of the pope? “

Tucked on the website of consultancy firm Propers AG, the recruitment page for the Papal Swiss Guards is aimed at young men used to clicking a mouse rather than wielding a halberd.

Potential guards can also surf to www.schweizergarde.org.

The combination of religion, tradition and modernity is a real draw, says recruit Adrien Pasquier (21), who is heading to Rome in November.

“Wanting to serve the [Catholic] Church is my major motivation,” Pasquier, who has a decade’s experience as an altar boy, says.

On top of that, he is driven by a fascination for history—he specialised in Latin and Greek at school, before shifting to economics.

The papal force of just 110 men starts a six-month string of events on Sunday to mark 500 years of defending the Vatican, with Masses in Rome’s Sistine Chapel and in the cathedral of Fribourg, in Switzerland’s Catholic heartland.

January 22 1506, saw the arrival of the first Swiss mercenaries brought in to defend Pope Julius II in a turbulent epoch when the hardy Alpine inhabitants were renowned for battlefield skills rather than neutrality and banking. Five centuries later, the corps is still drawn exclusively from Switzerland.

Asked whether it’s uncool to don a red, blue and yellow uniform and Renaissance-style plumed helmet, Pasquier laughs: “It’s a bit like a bunch of colourful clowns—at least that’s the side people see. That’s for sure.”

The guards are best known for their ceremonial side, but that represents only a third of their duties.
The rest involves more typical security work—of increased importance since the 1981 assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II—including working as plainclothes bodyguards for the pontiff.

The corps, long shrouded in mystery, has also lifted the veil somewhat after being rocked by scandal in 1988 when its commander and his wife were killed by a young recruit who then committed suicide.

Would-be guards must be Swiss citizens, faithful Roman Catholics with a “good moral and ethical background,” unmarried, aged 19 to 30 and at least 1,74m tall.

They must also have completed high school or an apprenticeship, plus basic military service in the Swiss army, and be prepared to sign up at the Vatican for at least two years.

While they may seem unfashionable, the Swiss Guards never have a problem finding candidates, says Andre Wyss, head of recruitment in Switzerland’s French-speaking regions.

The guards need 30 to 40 recruits annually. Wyss had 80 inquiries last year.

“The influences of the 500th anniversary, of John Paul II and the new pope have all been positive for recruitment,” says Wyss.

“These young men are often the ones questioning their faith and wanting to deepen it,” he adds. “At the same time, there are those who haven’t completely found their way professionally and want a few more cards up their sleeve before taking the next step.”

Joining up provides a chance to learn foreign languages as well as experience the multicultural Vatican, says Wyss.

After three years’ service, guards can also obtain a widely recognised security expert’s diploma.

“The salary isn’t the number-one reason for joining,” says Wyss, although he notes that applications rise when the Swiss economy slides.

Monthly pre-tax pay is about 2 000 Swiss francs ($1 600). A fixed sum is deducted for food, but accommodation is free.

Besides the internet, potential guards can get information from their parishes—recruitment posters are common in Switzerland’s Catholic churches.

Pasquier picked up a leaflet in a chapel while out hiking with his family in 2000, aged 16.

“I kept it, then the idea came back to me four years later when I was in the army and I said to myself, ‘Why not?’”

Applicants must provide a parish reference, plus documents including school or employers’ certificates, army records and confirmation of a clean criminal record.

After a three-hour interview with Wyss or his counterparts in Switzerland’s German- and Italian-speaking regions, a successful recruit gets a green light to go to Rome for 26 days of basic training, the final filter.

“I’m planning on serving for three years,” says Pasquier.

Asked if he would sign up for longer—the maximum is 25 years—Pasquier says: “I tell myself that I need to be there and experience it to find out if it’s really for me.”—AFP

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