VATICAN CITY — They are the world's oldest, if smallest, standing Army — the 110 members of the Swiss Guard.
Guardsmen must swear to protect their leader, the pope. They may look odd — guarding the Vatican in their gold and blue pantaloons, feathered helmets and long halberds — but commander Elmar Maeder says his soldiers train hard, must be devoutly Catholic and mentally tough.
"He has to stand through long hours which is not always easy, especially through the night shifts," says Maeder.
They were once the best fighters in Europe, so Pope Julius II hired a company of Swiss soldiers to be his private guard in 1506.
But only once in 500 years have they had to fight, during the sack of Rome in 1527. Outnumbered six-to-one, the guard held off more than 1,000 invading German and Spanish soldiers at St. Angelo's Castle in Rome. Pope Clement VII managed to flee the Vatican, to another nearby castle, but the guard lost 80 percent of its men.
"They were decimated, but they saved the pope," says Vatican expert John Follain.
Ever since, they've been the pope's last line of defense, but not always in Renaissance uniform. Officers usually go undercover, like the guardsman who rescued the stricken Pope John Paul II after he was shot by an assassin in 1981.
"There was an emotional bond between the pope and us," says Elmar Maeder. "He had a strong charisma."
Over the years, the highlight for every new recruit was John Paul's personal blessing — he even made a point to learn their names. But last May's induction ceremony would be John Paul's last.
Earlier this month, the Swiss Guard faced a different challenge: protecting the Pope in death, as in life, with dignity and honor.
"That was a very important moment for each guard," says Maeder. "A last farewell, a last service we could do for the Holy Father."
These days the guard is preparing to serve a new pope, but an old friend.
"Benedict XVI is a pope that we know," says Maeder. "He has been for 23 years our neighbor."
Now, he's their commander in chief.
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