VATICAN CITY -- In their plumed helmets and striped uniforms, the Swiss Guards are one of the most beloved traditions of the Vatican -- and on Thursday take a central role in the pope's historic resignation. The bodyguards will stand at attention as the pope arrives by helicopter at his summer retreat in his last hours as pontiff. When they walk off duty, it will be one of the few visible signs that Benedict XVI is no longer pope. A look at the Swiss Guards and their colorful history.
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The corps, which some historians consider the oldest standing army in the world, was founded in 1506 by Pope Giulio II. Tradition has it that he was so impressed by the bravery of Swiss mercenaries that he asked them to defend the Vatican. Ever since, for more than 500 years, Switzerland has been supplying soldiers to the Vatican. The Swiss Guards swear an oath to give up their lives to protect the pope -- and in centuries past, they have. In 1527, 147 of them died protecting Pope Clement VII as he fled to safety when the troops of Emperor Charles V sacked Rome.
THE GUARDS AND BENEDICT:
The Swiss Guards will be center stage when Benedict, following a carefully choreographed plan, becomes the first pope in 600 years to resign. Benedict meets Thursday morning with cardinals, then flies by helicopter to the papal residence at Castel Gandolfo south of Rome. There, at 8 p.m. sharp, the doors of the palazzo close and the Swiss Guards walk off duty, their job protecting the leader of the Catholic Church over -- at least until the election of a new pope. Benedict's protection will immediately become the responsibility of Vatican police. "We are closing the door very symbolically for the end of the pontificate," said Swiss Guard Cpl. Urs Breitenmoser.
Recruits must be Catholic males between 19 and 30 who have completed their mandatory Swiss military service; they sign up for a minimum of two years. The force at the moment numbers 110 men. Recruits join the ranks in an elaborate swearing-in ceremony in the Vatican's apostolic palace. Each new guard grasps the corps' flag, raising three fingers in a symbol of the Holy Trinity and swears to uphold the Swiss Guard oath to protect the pope and his successors. The ceremony is held each May 6 to commemorate the Sack of Rome.
The force provides ceremonial duty, assists at Vatican functions -- and has a real function of actually protecting the pope. The guards, armed with halberds, are ubiquitous around the Vatican and are among the favorite targets of photo-snapping tourists. They have not been called to military duty in recent centuries. But several Swiss Guards in plainclothes are aboard the pope's plane during his worldwide travels to provide security. After the 1981 assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II, the Vatican beefed up bodyguard training for the guards -- including instruction in unarmed combat and small arms.
The current Renaissance-style uniform of blue, red, orange and yellow stripes was designed in the early 1900s by Commandant Jules Repond, who drew inspiration for the colors from Raphael's frescoes. Headgear for ordinary duties is a black beret, while the crimson-plumed helmets are reserved for special occasions like official visits, swearing-in ceremonies -- and, of course, papal retirement.
The legend of the corps was stained in 1998 by the slayings in a Vatican City apartment of the guard commander and his wife. The Vatican blamed the killings on a disgruntled guardsman who, the Vatican says, then shot himself dead. They were the first killings in the Vatican in 150 years.