By Carol Glatz
Having “Former member of the Swiss Guard” on one’s resume would be perfect for breaking into a career as a police officer or security specialist.
But it turns out that being a papal protector is also a great gateway into the priesthood.
“I don’t think I would have become a priest if I hadn’t served here” as a Swiss Guard, said Father Ruedi Heim, an episcopal vicar in the Diocese of Basel, Switzerland.
The 46-year-old former guardsman studied medicine for two years in college before heading off to complete mandatory Swiss military service.
He then turned his studies to theology, “but I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do” with the degree, he told Catholic News Service during a recent visit to Rome.
His indecision didn’t last long once he came to the Vatican in 1991 to serve as a Swiss Guard under Blessed John Paul II.
Spending long hours guarding walkways, doorways, corridors, naves and aisles, a guardsman meets a large number of religious, priests, bishops and cardinals who are visiting or working at the Vatican.
“I got to know a good number of priests who have been good examples for me,” he said.
The prelates “put the right questions to me,” like what was he going to do with his theology studies and what was his goal in life, and they made him think seriously about joining the priesthood, he said.
Steadily, one or two former Swiss Guards are ordained into the priesthood or enter a religious order every year.
With 110 men in the corps at a time, “that makes us the best vocations supplier for Switzerland,” said Msgr. Alain de Raemy, chaplain of the Swiss Guard.
To put it in perspective, the Diocese of Basel, which has a little more than 1 million Catholics, produces only about two or three priestly or religious vocations a year, Father Heim said, and all of Switzerland sees between 10 and 18 ordinations a year.
Not many people think of the Swiss Guard as a rich source of vocations, but it’s a place worth paying attention to, he said, especially as a channel for evangelization.
Msgr. de Raemy said the secret lies in “the bond with the pope” the guardsmen develop while fulfilling their duty of protecting the spiritual leader of the Catholic Church. Every year, when new guards are sworn in, they have to pledge to “faithfully, loyally and honorably” serve and protect the pontiff and, if necessary, sacrifice their lives for him.
Seeing the pope’s witness to the faith up close “has a very positive effect” on the young men and it prompts them to look at themselves, question their own lives “and look for the answers in faith,” the chaplain told CNS.
Living and working at the Vatican, “it’s here they discover what it means to choose a life dedicated to Jesus,” he said.
Obviously, with the thousands of people coming to and working at the Vatican, “there aren’t all good examples here” of being a Catholic, and sometimes guards may be “disillusioned with the Vatican because they thought it would be much more like a monastery.”
“I always have to explain, it’s not a monastery, it’s an administration, that’s a little different,” the chaplain said.
While recruits are required to be Catholic and have an “irreproachable reputation,” the level of their commitment to the faith when they enter the corps ranges from being “super Catholic” to “never went to church with their family,” the chaplain said.
All the men “want to take advantage of their time here to deepen their faith, become better aware of why they are Catholic and better understand their Catholic heritage,” Msgr. de Raemy said. He offers daily Mass, confession and a “very intense” catechetical program for new recruits.
The religious instructions continue throughout their two-year service with monthly classes, talks and workshops, he said, with topics ranging from how the Vatican works and what a cardinal is to what the church teaches about marriage and sexuality, he said.
He said he’s struck by how the men always “really want to know what they have to do and what they mustn’t do” to live a Christian life and why. “They want precise guidance.”
While all the guards are already open to learning more about their faith, Msgr. de Raemy said the positive experience of the Swiss Guards could provide good lessons for the new evangelization, especially in reaching out to youth.
Never be afraid of dealing directly with people’s questions and don’t try to dodge anything, especially difficult or sensitive issues, he said.
“They want to know and they are happy when they know more. There is no need to adapt,” dress up or hide what the faith says. “It’s necessary to really show the faith as it is,” he said.
Father Heim said he uses the same open and direct approach in parish life that he found with his formation in the guard, avoiding formal terminology, directly answering questions, speaking to people face-to-face and not putting any topic off limits.
The guard-turned-priest said that for some former guards, “their spiritual quest in life often finishes here (at the Vatican) and for others they’re really practicing” and active in their faith communities.
It’s not easy to stay faithful in highly secularized Switzerland, the former guard and the chaplain agreed, but the exiting guards can stay connected through associations for ex-Swiss Guards “to help each other maintain the flame” of faith and help their local bishop and church.
As a result, the monsignor said, all those who serve as a Swiss Guard end up “becoming ambassadors of the church.”
Their life as a guard teaches them strength, perseverance, respect and how to live a more mature faith “where they realize their responsibility as a Catholic” to share their belief and experience with others, he said. – CNS