Defending the pope: Meet the new recruits behind the Swiss Guards’ armour

It may surprise many that an army from a neutral nation has the job of protecting the pope. We meet the new recruits being sworn in as Swiss Guards.

This photo taken on April 26th, 2023 shows a squadron of the Swiss Guard returning from a representation service at the Apostolic Palace, in the days leading up to the swearing-in ceremony of new Guard recruits Switzerland to the Vatican.
This photo taken on April 26th, 2023 shows a squadron of the Swiss Guard returning from a representation service at the Apostolic Palace, in the days leading up to the swearing-in ceremony of new Guard recruits Switzerland to the Vatican. (Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP)

It takes over an hour to don the colourful uniform of the pope’s Swiss Guards, and new recruits soon discover they cannot buckle up armour weighing 15 kilogrammes by themselves.

Jeremy and Paul, whose surnames cannot be published for security reasons, will soon be sworn in as guards at the Vatican, joining an ancient, prestigious body responsible for protecting the pope.

For the special occasion, 21-year-old Jeremy swaps his T-shirt and sneakers for highly polished metal garb selected from among the armour, muskets, swords and helmets in the barracks’ armoury.

“There are two of us to put on the whole thing: the collar around the neck, the chest, the back, the epaulettes and the helmet. It takes about an hour and a half,” he told AFP.

The Swiss Guards, the world’s oldest practising army, was founded by Pope Julius II in 1506 and is famous for its blue, yellow and red striped uniform.

READ ALSO: Why do the Swiss guard the Vatican?

But three times a year – Christmas, Easter and the swearing-in – they adorn themselves with the shiny, heavy armour.

Carpenter Jeremy, who comes from a farming family near Fribourg in Switzerland, will take the oath on Saturday in the presence of his family and

Tall, blond and blue-eyed, Jeremy will be pledging along with 22 others to “sacrifice his life” for Pope Francis for at least 26 months.

The new recruits will raise the number of currently serving Swiss Guards to 125.

“It’s a curious world, the more you look into it, the more you want to join,” Jeremy said, adding that he felt “pride and emotion” when he put on the uniform for the first time.

This photo taken on April 26, 2023 shows new Swiss Guards preparing for daily training in the Vatican Armory at the Pontifical Swiss Guard headquarters.

This photo taken on April 26, 2023 shows new Swiss Guards preparing for daily training in the Vatican Armory at the Pontifical Swiss Guard headquarters. (Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP)

Single and Swiss

A few metres further on, in a courtyard hung with the flags of the Swiss cantons, 22-year-old Paul is part of a small group rehearsing the upcoming oath-taking.

Like the others, Paul did a month of practical training in Switzerland before undergoing another at the Vatican.

He does both day and night patrols, guarding the gates to the Vatican and key areas within it.

“When you arrive here, you think ‘wow’,” he says, as he stands in the gilded Apostolic Palace. Just outside the door, hordes of tourists photograph the Sistine Chapel.

“At first, we spend our shifts looking at all these paintings, it’s fabulous,” he said.

Paul was inspired to join up during a 2016 family trip to Rome.

Luckily, he met the admission requirements: unmarried, male, Swiss, a practising Catholic, aged between 19 and 30, at least 1.74 metres tall, and bearing, according to the rules, “an impeccable reputation”.

Like all new recruits, he has to learn a lot in record time: how to speak Italian, salute, march in formation, wield the halberd, stand guard, and also recognise those regularly coming and going from the Vatican.

“It’s an honour for the Swiss,” said Paul.

Nonetheless, he admitted “it’s very complex, the work is extremely varied”, and his knowledge is regularly assessed as part of his training.

Pope’s ‘calling card’

New guards undergo a medical examination and are also encouraged to take part in sports, as “it’s quite demanding to be on your feet for hours on end,” said Jeremy.

“We always have to be ready to intervene if something happens,” he said – though the guards share papal security responsibilities with the Vatican police.

Swiss Guards are also expected to behave impeccably, as they are often in the public eye.

“The Pope once said that we were his calling card,” Jeremy said. “We are told that we are the most photographed Swiss in the world!”

Unlike many men their age, there is no painting the town red for Swiss Guards.

“It’s not a monastery, you’re allowed to go out, but service is the priority. It gives us a sense of duty.”

Many guards attend mass or spiritual retreats. The rest of the time they explore Rome, go to the nearby beach, or run in the lush Vatican gardens.

“We live in a world full of history, we are very privileged,” said Jeremy.

“It’s a big family, with a great sense of camaraderie and mutual support.”

By Clément MELKI

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‘Party after 10pm’: The 10 things that really annoy the Swiss

The Swiss are organised, live by the clock, and tend to micromanage everything around them – so it’s no surprise that it doesn’t take much to irritate them.

'Party after 10pm': The 10 things that really annoy the Swiss

Not respecting the proper train etiquette

If there is one thing the Swiss love, it is the practice of proper etiquette – be it in a social or business setting.

This means that every Swiss person tends to follow an unwritten set of rules when out and about, such as when catching a train on their commute to work.

While foreigners will swiftly (be forced to) embrace the silence that makes up social etiquette rule number one when travelling on Swiss trains, it may prove a little more difficult to refrain from eating certain (smelly) snacks on a packed train.

However, should you give into temptation and whip out a whole McDonald’s meal, know that your fellow Swiss travellers will not be impressed and may even have a word with you.

While eating hearty, hot foods on a train can result in complaints, you are more than welcome to eat cold foods and snacks whenever hunger strikes.

In any case, eating on Swiss trains is not forbidden, but if you fancy a real meal, you may want to consider boarding a SBB restaurant on one of their InterCity trains instead.

While on a Swiss train, it is also worth remembering that you will be expected to ask your fellow passenger(s) whether the seat next to them (yes, the one they are obviously not occupying) is ‘really’ free. You will then be graciously granted permission to sit.

Hosting a party past 10pm

One of the first things that strikes foreigners in Switzerland are the (sometimes very) long lists of rules governing life in apartment buildings in the country, which famously include the notorious (but very respected) ‘rest periods’ ‘rest periods’ (Ruhezeiten/ temps de repos).

Such quiet times are set by local authorities around Switzerland and differ slightly depending on where you live, however, most often than not the quiet time kicks off at 10pm. From that time onwards, you are expected to keep noise at a minimum – or there will be complaints.

The same goes for Sundays when you are expected to not engage in excessively noisy activities.

But what classifies as excessive noise?

While the Swiss Code of Obligations states (Article 257f Para. 2) that those renting apartments must show consideration for residents and neighbours, it doesn’t explain what exactly said consideration entails, relying instead on a person’s common sense to decide just what is an appropriate level of noise.

On a wider scale, unwanted noise can include anything from playing instruments, slamming doors during arguments, using a drill for home improvements, or emulating Heidi Klum in some fancy high heels.

If you’re still set on hosting a party on a Sunday or past 10pm, notify your neighbours first, and good luck – you’ll need it.

READ MORE: Six things you shouldn’t do on a Sunday in Switzerland

Dropping in without prior notice

The Swiss are very organised, timely, and love abiding by their (strict) rules.

Popular lore has it that this habit is not as entrenched in Italian and French-speaking regions as it is in the Swiss-German part.

But if you want to irk people, regardless of the geographical area, drop in announced. Don’t call or send messages telling them you’re coming — just show up at their doorstep.

And if you do tell them you’re coming…arrive late. Few things irritate Swiss people more than tardiness.

If you’re invited over for dinner and are on time, the only way to cause some upset is to arrive emptyhanded.

In Switzerland, most people choose to bring a bottle of wine or a seasonal bouquet of flowers as a small thank you gift.

If you’re looking to up the ante however and really rile up a Swiss person, ring them up at dinner time and engage them in a lengthy conversation.

In Switzerland, dinner time is sacred, and you are commonly expected to cease all spontaneous contact from 6pm onwards.

Making fun of their army

To tell a Swiss person their military is not a ‘real army’, is sure to rub them up the wrong way.

They regard army service not only as their patriotic and civic duty, but also as a rite of passage of sorts.

True, not every country’s military has army knives, cutlery, watches, travel gear and fragrances attached to their name, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t fight if they had to.

Greeting the wrong way

In a country with four national languages, you may be tempted to think that the Swiss practice a laidback ‘anything goes’ approach – when nothing could be further from the truth.

So, which is it? Grüezi, Bonjour, or maybe just a simple Hallo?

Over the course of your time in Switzerland you will encounter many people, be it co-workers, fellow students or just strangers on the street – so it’s easy to find yourself overwhelmed with figuring out just how to greet people properly. Yet, getting this right may just make you a friend or two.

As with many things in Switzerland, the way to greet people, too, depends on the canton you’re in. In casual situations, such as when riding lifts or meeting people out on hikes, usually a friendly Grüezi, Bonjour, or Buongiorno will get the job done. Greeting anyone that isn’t friend or family with a Hallo is not common in Switzerland and is often perceived as rude. So, as a rule of thumb, always stick with the formal way of greeting people you’re not close with.

In a business environment, always greet people with a firm (!) handshake in addition to addressing them formally – this is crucial until the other person initiates an informal approach.

When it comes to greeting friends, however, the rules are generally a lot more relaxed, depending on the closeness of the friendship. While many Swiss friends are content with a quick Hoi, Salut, or Ciao, some will favour a more physical approach, such as a hug.

Good friends also greet each other with three kisses (left, right, left) – but be careful when greeting a French person, they start with the right!

Not respecting wildlife

We know by now how much the Swiss appreciate their quiet times, but did you know their wildlife does too?

It is therefore recommended to be mindful of wildlife when out on hikes or busy enjoying a barbeque in a forest.

It’s generally advised to refrain from blasting loud music, shouting, or conversing in a loud manner so as not to disturb the animals and other hikers who may have ventured into the forest seeking peace and solitude.

Dogs walkers must also be aware of the local wildlife breeding season when some cantons have specified the months your dog must be walked with a leash, while again others forbid walking your pooch off a leash in and near forests altogether.

Remember, the Swiss love their hikes, and you will encounter your fair share of hikers while out exploring nature’s wonders, so be sure to follow the rules – the Swiss aren’t too shy to reprimand you.

Underestimating nature

One of the first things my foreign friends told me upon landing in Switzerland was that they cannot wait to go hiking in the Swiss Alps.

But while Switzerland is a perfect place to go hiking with its thousands of marked trails, every year, hundreds of people get into accidents while trekking, and some even die.

In the case of an accident, the last thing you will want is to be branded a ‘typical foreigner’, so make sure you wear appropriate clothing (specifically shoes), pack enough water, and download the Meteo Swiss App to stay informed on severe weather forecasts and other natural hazards.

READ MORE: Unwritten rules: 10 things you shouldn’t do in Switzerland

Asking inappropriate questions

It is no secret that the Swiss have an innate sense of privacy and breaching the wrong subject may (rightfully) make for a rocky encounter.

The Swiss have a range of topics – such as one’s salary – that make for an awkward discussion even among the closest of friends.

Generally, discussions around divisive topics, such as finances, politics, and religion, are best avoided.

Taking a long time to order at the bakery

If you happen to be a morning person who enjoys a yummy pastry in the morning – as many Swiss do – remember that hitting the bakery in Switzerland will require you to make up your mind about your order fast – and ideally before you get there.

Unlike in some European countries, the Swiss like to get on with their day’s work and prolonged chats paired with indecisiveness are generally not encouraged. That said, always feel free to ask for recommendations.

Making assumptions

Many people, especially foreigners new to Switzerland, believe that only the very rich live in wealthy Switzerland.

Foreigners can therefore be quick to assume that every Swiss person works as a banker, broker, or trader – or worse, is mega rich.

But this is actually not the case and could ruffle a few feathers.

In fact, the super-wealthy – those with assets worth more than 1 million  – account for only 15 percent of the adult population.

The largest group is middle-class, Switzerland also has people living under the poverty threshold.

In 2021, Caritas estimated that 745,000 people (134,000 children) were affected by poverty in Switzerland, while around 1.244.000 people living in Switzerland were considered to be at risk of poverty.