Vatican City, May 6, 2017 / 10:46 am (CNA/EWTN News).- As 40 new Swiss Guards take an oath to defend and protect Pope Francis, their commander has emphasized that their role is not only to be a security force, but has a spiritual aspect as well. “If someone in the (job) interview only talks about security and doesn’t know who they are giving security for…for me he is not a candidate,” Christoph Graf, Commander of the Swiss Guard, told journalists May 5. 

“For me a candidate must have a foundation in the faith, to be a practicing Catholic” who goes to Mass and prays, he said, adding that if a young man knows nothing of the faith, “I don’t know what he’s looking for (in the Swiss Guard).” Because of the army’s ties to the Pope and to the Church, he said having a solid faith life is “fundamental,” and explained that it’s even possible “to help some on the path of faith” if they have only a minimal knowledge.

In addition to being a line of defense for the Bishop of Rome, the Guard must also be “missionary,” he said, saying they must protect the Pope “with weapons, but also the faith. With prayer.”

Graf, who has served as the 35th Commander of the Pontifical Swiss Guard since 2015, spoke at a press conference a day ahead of the official swearing-in of 40 new Swiss Guards, who take a special oath to defend and protect the Pope. 

With roughly 100 applicants for 30-35 spots each year, competition to be a Swiss Guard is tough, Graf said — there is a process of filtering the candidates in order to ween the list down to 40 or 50 people, who come to him for a final interview.  After speaking with each of them for 15-20 minutes, “you know” who the real candidates are, he said. 

Those who are accepted serve for a minimum of two years, but can also stay in service for an additional year or two, which was the case for many guards during last year’s Jubilee of Mercy. With a motto of “Courage and Loyalty,” the Pontifical Swiss Guard currently has just over 110 members, making it the smallest, though oldest army in the world.

The official swearing-in ceremony takes place each year on the anniversary of the May 6, 1527 battle that has come to be known as the Sack of Rome, and which was the most significant and deadly event in the history of the Swiss Guard. In the course of the battle, 147 guards lost their lives while fighting the army of the mutinous Holy Roman Empire in defense of Clement VII, who was able to escape through a secret passageway leading from the Vatican to Castel Sant’Angelo, which sits next to the Tiber River.

As part of the schedule this year, the family members of the new guards prayed Vespers the evening of May 5 in the church of Santa Maria della Pieta in the Vatican’s Teutonic College. Later, the “deposition of the crown” ceremony took place in commemoration of the guards who died during the Sack of Rome. Before taking their official oath in the afternoon, the guards had 7:30 a.m. Mass with Cardinal Gerhard Muller, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, at the Altar of the Chair in St. Peter’s Basilica. 

They then met with Pope Francis before getting ready for the swearing-in ceremony, which took place in the San Damasco courtyard of the apostolic palace and was attended by Graf and representatives of the Swiss Army and the Swiss government, as well as the Bishops Conference of Switzerland. 

During the event, each new recruit approaches the flag of the Swiss Guard when his name is called out. Firmly grasping the banner with his left hand, the new guard raises his right hand and opens three fingers as a sign of his faith in the Holy Trinity. As he holds up his fingers, the guard proclaims this oath: “I, (name), swear diligently and faithfully to abide by all that has just been read out to me, so grant me God and so help me his saints.”

In English, the full oath reads: “I swear I will faithfully, loyally and honorably serve the Supreme Pontiff Francis and his legitimate successors, and also 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!”

In comments to CNA, one of the new guards, Filippo Inches, spoke of the connection between his service and the faith, saying that “without doubt my faith has increased and has been fortified.”  “Because living 24/7 in this environment, in the context of the Vatican, surrounded by all these monsignors, archbishops and the Pope himself; participating at least one or twice a week in one of his events, listening to his preaching — inevitably and involuntarily something sticks,” he said.

Inches, who has served as a Swiss Guard for the past 11 months, is from the small Swiss town of Vacallo, which sits on the border with Italy, just 37 miles north of Milan. He took his official oath to protect and defend Pope Francis alongside 39 other guards this year. By serving in the small army, “you also realize increasingly how important the role of the Church is as an institution,” he said, suggesting that while the Church is often criticized from the outside, being on the inside shows a different story. 

“On the inside, you are aware of how many efforts are made to seek for dialogue, and peaceful solution to the various controversies and conflicts, whether on a political level, an economic level, cultural with different forums and also at the scientific level,” Inches said.

The guard explained that he had wanted to join ever since he was young. He traveled to Rome often as a child, where he always noticed the Swiss Guard, but it wasn’t until he was studying humanities in university that he decided to jump into the “adventure” of becoming one. 

He said that for him, defending the Pope means “being a part of history” given the army’s ancient roots.  “So belonging to this corps I am very proud,” he said, “you see the universality, both of the Church and of history.” Inches said he has had the opportunity to see the Pope and speak with him on several occasions during events or while standing guard outside his room.

“It can happen that he greets you, extending his hand and exchanging some joke,” he said, adding that what moves him most is when he sees the Pope coming in and out of his room, because “he gives this look like there is always a certain familiarity between him and the guards.”

In his speech to the guards and their families before the official swearing-in ceremony, Pope Francis told the guards that while they might not be called to give their lives like the 127 who died during the Sack of Rome, they are called “to another sacrifice no less arduous: to serve the power of faith.” “This is a true barrier to resist the various strengths and powers of this world and above all he who is the ‘prince of this world’,” the Pope said, telling the guards they are called to be “strong and valorous, sustained by faith in Christ and by his Word of salvation.”

He invited them to live their time in Rome with “sincere brotherhood,” supporting each other in an exemplary Christian life that is “motivated and supported by your faith.”  “I’m sure that the strongest push to come to Rome to fulfill this service was given to you precisely by your faith,” he said, explaining that their mission comes primarily from their baptism, which allows them to bear witness to their faith in Christ.  He urged them to practice charitable service toward one another, being “missionary disciples” in the daily tasks which might seem repetitive, but to which “it is important to always give new meaning.”

During his speech at the swearing-in, Graf noted that this year marks the 600th anniversary of the birth of one of the patron saints of the Swiss Guard, St. Nicholas of Flue, known as the “defensor Pacis et pater patriate,” or, “the defender of peace and the father of our country.” Other patron saints are St. Martin and St. Sebastian.

Graf encouraged the guards to look to Scripture and the lives of the saints for examples of how to give their lives generously and with humility, saying “whoever wants to successfully guide must first learn how to love people.” He pointed to various economic and political crises taking place throughout Europe, including those of poverty, unemployment, terrorism, migration and “a growing Islamophobia,” which are causing “a certain sense of impotence and disorientation.”

“Must not a cause for this crisis also be sought in the growing disappearance of faith, in the growing lack of God?” he asked. “Wake up, dear Christians!” he said. “The present world has a new need for examples, especially in our Europe.” “The present world needs simple and humble people who live and bear witness to the faith. People who carry out their daily duties with love, who pray and do penance,” he said, asking for both prayer and fasting, saying “you will be surprised at what you can do with that.”