.- The world’s oldest active military corps, the Pontifical Swiss Guard, will celebrate its 500th anniversary next year. Earlier today, Vatican officials announced 5-month long plans for the momentous occasion.
Colonel Elmar Th. Mader, commander of the Pontifical Swiss Guard and Pier Paolo Francini, head of the Philatelic and Numismatic Office of the Governorate of Vatican City, were both on hand in the Holy See Press Office this morning to present the schedule.
At the outset of the press conference, Colonel Mader, briefly explained the history of the Swiss Guard, pointing out 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 the Vatican was ever in danger.
The Pope chose Switzerland because of the country‘s history, as well as the large number of infantrymen available, but most of all, because of the great respect for the Church that characterized the Swiss Cantons.
In 1505, with his Bull "Confoederatis Superioris Alemanniae," the Holy Father 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 150-member strong guard, then crossed the Alps and the Italian regions of Lombardy and Tuscany, arriving in Rome on January 22, 1506
Colonel Mader said that "For the occasion of the fifth centenary of Julius II's Bull, 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,” Mader continued, “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."
He added that all of the celebrations "must take into account the fact that former Swiss Guards still feel bound to the corps,” and that "celebrations must include our own homeland as well as Italy, the Vatican and the city of Rome."
The Colonel went on to give details of the upcoming celebrations, which will commence on January 21st of next year with a gala reception at the Vatican. The following day, a Mass, presided at by Cardinal Secretary of State Angelo Sodano, will be held in the Sistine Chapel.
On March 29th, 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 display will explore the different aspects of the Swiss Guard both from a historical perspective and with regard to its current activities.
Later that spring, on April 7th, some 100 Swiss Guard members will retrace the historic Via Francigena pilgrimage route from Swiss Bellinzona to Rome, recalling the journey of their forbearers 500 years before.
They will be greeted in Rome on May 4th by local authorities before proceeding to the Vatican to receive a blessing from the Pope.
The major celebration of the fifth centenary will commence on May 6th with a commemorative Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, in which, a wreath of flowers will be laid in the Square of the Protomartyrs recalling fellow Swiss, who fell during the 1527 sack of Rome.
Then, at 4.30 p.m. in the Square, new Guard recruits will be sworn in, following with annual tradition. This year however, will mark the first time that the swearing-in ceremony has been held in St. Peter’s Square, not the San Damasco courtyard as is customary.
That evening, the day will conclude with a fireworks display over Castel Sant'Angelo.
In addition to a number of musical concerts scheduled for May in honor of the Guard--including one by the Swiss Army Concert Band on the 7th--a series of commemorative stamps honoring the 500th anniversary will also be issued.
Pier Paolo Francini, head of the Philatelic and Numismatic Office of the Governorate of Vatican City explained details of the Vatican stamps, recalling that this “is the first time 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 Swiss Guard commemorative coin, valued at two euros, and scheduled to be released during the first six months of 2006.
Colonel Mader also noted that the Swiss Confederation itself has issued a gold coin to commemorate the anniversary, also designed by Rudolf Mirer.
Two more coins are scheduled to be minted in honor of the April pilgrimage from Switzerland including one in gold with the image of Pope Julius II, and another in silver, emblazoned with the image of Pope Benedict XVI.
In addition, the colonel pointed out that an official Vatican medal will be produced and given to current members of the Swiss Guard in honor of their service to the Holy See.