ROME – The world’s smallest army, which in recent years has struggled to fill all its slots for new recruits, has created a new media relations position in a bid to generate better publicity and attract new members.
In a statement on September 1, the Pontifical Swiss Guard announced that they were expanding their presence in Switzerland “by creating a press office and a contact point for the authorities.”
The man selected for the position is Stefan Wyer, originally from Visp and who previously worked as an independent business consultant for communication and politics.
Wyer will report directly to Swiss Guard Commander Christoph Graf, who was appointed to the role by Pope Francis in 2015, and will also work closely with the head of the Swiss Guard Information and Recruitment Office, Bernhard Messmer.
After Pope Francis’ decision in 2018 to increase the number of Swiss Guards from 110 to 135, “the need to recruit new recruits has increased,” the statement says, saying the recruitment process “must be supported by a job more active public relations ”
According to the statement, the Guard’s new public relations push will include the creation of a direct point of contact with Swiss Media and better publication of its activities and entities attached to the Guard.
In recent years, the Swiss Guard has attempted to change the perception that those who enlist are just another tourist attraction at the Vatican, standing with their distinctive halberds in hand as foreigners take selfies alongside their colorful uniforms and hats. of feathers
Instead, the Guard has sought to emphasize the weapons and military training members are required to have, and the fact that they accompany the pope wherever he goes, including on trips abroad.
New recruits take the oath each year on May 6, marking the date in 1527 when 147 Swiss Guards lost their lives defending Pope Clement VII during the Sack of Rome. Only 42 Guardsmen survived the massacre, and the swearing-in date was specifically selected as a reminder of what they must be willing to sacrifice in swearing to protect and serve the Pope.
The Guard, whose members pledge to “faithfully, loyally and honorably” serve and protect the Pope and, if necessary, give their lives for him, watch over the Pope at his residence in the Vatican’s Domus Sanctae Marthae guesthouse, and also provide security at public events and for visits by heads of state and other dignitaries to the Vatican.
Conditions to join the Guard
To be accepted into the Swiss Guard, recruits must meet a list of specific criteria.
They must be men, Swiss citizens, practicing Catholics, single and between 19 and 30 years old. Entering young men must be engaged for at least 26 months and must also be athletic, in good health, and at least 5 feet 8 inches tall with an “unblemished reputation.”
New recruits must pass a series of health tests to be accepted, including a psychophysical test that assesses their ability to handle stress. They must also have completed the Swiss Army Recruit School, giving them familiarity with the military and building camaraderie in close quarters.
The training of the new guards lasts two months and is divided into two parts.
Since 2016, new members have undergone intensive training with the police in the Swiss canton of Ticino, having completed their medical examinations in Rome.
Training courses in Ticino include the study of certain aspects of psychology and law, as well as tactical military training and lessons in other areas such as firefighting, CPR, shooting, self-defense with “restraint and restraint techniques”, as well such as sports and measures for personal safety.
In the second part of their training, Swiss Guard recruits return to the Vatican to learn more practical skills, including Italian lessons and learn about the layout of Vatican City and the people they will encounter on a daily basis.
Your knowledge of the Vatican Apostolic Palace and the people employed in each of the Vatican offices is assessed weekly.
New recruits also undergo more military training exercises and drills on marching, alone and as a team, and on the use of the halberd they carry while on duty.
Swiss Guards are expected to practice “continuous learning” during their time in the small army and undergo various checks and tests during their time in the Vatican, including formal language tests and an annual athletic test.
In recent years, there has been talk within the Swiss Guard about allowing women to join its ranks.
The main reason why women are not allowed, at least since the beginning of the new millennium, is not gender, but housing, as the current Swiss Guard barracks are small and cramped shared spaces, with only 12 single rooms. for the entire army of 135 men. , which makes the incorporation of women in such small spaces problematic.
Last year, the Vatican unveiled plans to renovate the Swiss Guard barracks, with a projected completion date of 2026, to mark the 520th anniversary of the Swiss Guard’s founding.
The plans include a much-needed expansion that is intended not only to improve the lives of guards and their families, but also allow for the possibility of allowing women to be recruited in the future.
The new barracks are scheduled to formally open on May 6, 2027, the anniversary of the Sack of Rome, and include floor plans for 123 individual rooms spread over four floors.
The building is now 150 years old and requires almost constant repairs, making the need for upgrades and modernization urgent, and with the decision to increase the number of guards to 135, the pressure for more space has increased.
A Swiss-based architecture studio has designed the new barracks, in accordance with current building and safety codes, as well as environmental efficiency standards. The total cost is estimated to be around $60 million.
Whether any of these efforts and the new media push will succeed in attracting new recruits remains to be seen, but in the meantime, the Watch appears to be doing its best to spark interest in what is arguably one of the armies. more unique. experiences in the world.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen