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Thursday, January 19, 2006

Vatican's Swiss Guard to fete 500th as world's oldest military corps

Catholic News Agency

VATICAN CITY (CNA) – The Vatican announced today its final plans for the celebration of the fifth centenary of the Pontifical Swiss Guard, the world’s oldest standing military corps.

The celebration will open on Sunday, Jan. 22, when Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano will preside at Mass in the Sistine Chapel for the 110 active members of the guard as well as their families.

Simultaneously, Cardinal Georges Marie Martin Cottier will celebrate Mass in the Cathedral of St. Nicholas in Fribourg, Switzerland, where more than 500 former Swiss Guard members will be gathered with their families.

At noon on that day, a guard of honor, made up of 70 members of the corps will be on hand in St. Peter’s Square for Pope Benedict XVI’s Angelus prayer where they will receive a papal blessing.

This will re-enact an event from 500 years ago performed by Pope Julius II. Former guards gathered in Fribourg will be able to follow the events via live television.

The Vatican also noted that the day will conclude with a presentation of a special commemorative papal medal, made for the occasion. This will take place in the Courtyard of Honor of the Swiss Guard.

At a Nov. 22 press conference at the Holy See Press Office here, anniversary celebration plans were unveiled for the fifth centenary of the foundation of the Pontifical Swiss Guard, the world's oldest active military corps.

The Vatican's commemorative stamps, featuring artwork by former guard Rudolf Mirer, went on sale Nov. 22 at the Vatican and in Switzerland, marking the first Vatican-Swiss stamp package.

Colonel Elmar Mader, commander of the Pontifical Swiss Guard, flanked by two guards in their traditional tri-colored uniforms, briefly summarizing the history of the founding of the Swiss Guard.

He recalled that Pope Julius II (1503-1513) had wanted a troop of guards both for his own personal protection and as the permanent nucleus of a larger army to be formed in case of need. He decided on Switzerland because of the history of the country, the large number of infantrymen available and, above all, the great respect for the Church that characterized the Swiss Cantons.

In 1505, with the Bull "Confoederatis Superioris Alemanniae," the Pope ordered the prelate of the papal court Peter von Hertenstein to recruit 200 Swiss soldiers and lead them to Rome under the command of Captain Kasper von Silenen. The guard, with 150 members, crossed the Alps and the Italian regions of Lombardy and Tuscany, arriving in Rome on January 22, 1506.

"For the occasion of the fifth centenary of Julius II's Bull," Colonel Mader went on, "the Holy Father wrote a letter to the president of the Swiss Episcopal Conference and to all the Swiss Guards, both those still in service and those who have been discharged. In his Message, the Holy Father recalls the founding of the Guard, their heroic sacrifice during the sack of Rome (1527) and his gratitude for their centuries-long faithfulness to the pontiff."

All the celebrations "must take into account the fact that former Swiss Guards still feel bound to the corps," said Clonel Mader. And "celebrations must include our own homeland as well as Italy, the Vatican and the city of Rome."

Colonel Mader went on to give details of the celebrations for the fifth centenary, which will begins on Jan. 21, 2006, with a gala reception, followed the next day by Mass in the Sistine Chapel presided by the Cardinal Secretary of State. A guard of honor in St. Peter's Square for the Angelus prayer and the papal blessing will recall the historic arrival of the first guards.

On March 29, 2006, an exhibition entitled "The Pontifical Swiss Guard, 500 years of history, art and life," will be inaugurated in the Charlemagne Wing at the left colonnade of St. Peter's Square. The exhibition will concentrate on the different aspects of the Swiss Guard, both from a historical perspective and as regards its current activities.

On April 7, 2006, around 100 former Swiss Guards will begin a commemorative march from Bellinzona in the Swiss Canton of Ticino. The march will cover various stages and, largely following the old pilgrim route known as the Via Francigena, will reach Rome on May 4. On that day, as 500 years before, the former Swiss Guards will cross the city of Rome where they will be welcomed by the local authorities, then proceed to St. Peter's Square, where they will receive the Holy Father's blessing.

May 6, 2006, the main day of the fifth centenary celebrations, will begin with a commemorative Mass in St. Peter's Basilica. A wreath of flowers will then be laid in the Square of Roman Protomartyrs inside the Vatican to recall the Swiss Guards who fell during the sack of Rome in 1527. At 4.30 p.m., the annual swearing-in ceremony for new recruits will take place; for the first time in history it will be held in St. Peter's Square, rather than in the San Damaso courtyard where it normally takes place. In the evening, a firework display over Castel Sant'Angelo will conclude the day.

The May celebrations also include three concerts, all in the Paul VI Hall. On May 3, the Swiss Army Concert Band will perform a selection of popular music. On May 4, the united choirs of the Olten Cantonal School together with the Swiss Army Concert Band will perform the oratorio "Nicholas de Flue," by the Swiss composer Arthur Honegger with words by Denis de Rougement. On May 5, the choir and orchestra of the Collegium Musicum of Lucerne, with soloists from the Higher School of Music, also of Lucerne, the choir of Freiburg Cathedral and the Vokalensemble of the Swiss Canton of Schwyz will perform the "Carmen Saeculare" by Father Theo Flury.

The Swiss Army Concert Band will also play a concert of music on Sunday May 7, following the Angelus in St. Peter's Square.

For his part, Pier Paolo Francini, head of the Philatelic and Numismatic Office of the Governorate of Vatican City, outlined details of an issue of Vatican stamps dedicated to the 500th anniversary of the foundation of the Pontifical Swiss Guard.

It is the first time, he said, "that a series of stamps has been jointly issued by Switzerland and Vatican City." The stamps have been designed by the Swiss artist Rudolf Mirer, himself a former Swiss Guard.

Francini also announced the coining of a commemorative two-euro coin, scheduled to be released during the first six months of 2006 and dedicated to the Pontifical Swiss Guard on the fifth centenary of its foundation.

Colonel Mader pointed out that the Swiss Confederation has issued a gold coin to commemorate the anniversary, also designed by Rudolf Mirer. Two further coins will be minted for the occasion of the commemorative march: one in gold with the image of Pope Julius II and another in silver, portraying Pope Benedict XVI. Furthermore, he concluded, an official medal of the Holy See will also be produced and awarded to current members of the Swiss Guard.

The current Swiss Guard has 110 male Swiss citizens, all of whom are Catholic and at least 5 feet 8 inches tall. They must have an impeccable reputation, be under age 30, unmarried when they begin their service and have served in the Swiss Army.

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