May 4, 2006 — -- Just as it did 500 years ago, the pope's Swiss Guard marched, with quite some fanfare, into Rome today.
It was commemorating the 500th anniversary of the establishment of the Swiss Guard, the world's smallest army, by retracing the footsteps of the first 150 Swiss Guards who came to Rome in 1506 at the request of Pope Julius II.
About 80 former Swiss Guards, ranging in age from 30 to 76, were met in Rome by city officials, military bands and active Swiss Guards in full uniform. They all marched from downtown Rome to the Vatican, where they received warm greetings and a blessing from Pope Benedict XVI.
Today's festive march was just one of a series of celebrations that will culminate with a papal mass and the formal swearing in of new recruits in St. Peter's Square on May 6.
How did the Swiss come to protect the pope? During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Switzerland earned a reputation for having Europe's most reliable mercenaries -- valorous soldiers who were virtually unbeatable and never switched sides.
Various European royals used small corps of Swiss mercenary soldiers to protect themselves and their palaces. Pope Julius II had admired the Swiss soldiers, who defended the king of France, and he requested a contingent of 200 to serve as his personal bodyguards and to defend his palaces.
Only 150 were available at the time, and they arrived in Rome on Jan. 21, 1506, after marching for three months.
And they were soon put to the test. During the Sack of Rome on May 6, 1527, 147 Swiss Guards were killed defending Pope Clement VII, who managed to escape to the fortress of Castel Sant' Angelo escorted by the remaining 22 guards.
It is in remembrance of this occasion that new recruits are sworn in every year on May 6.
Today there are 110 Swiss Guards at the Vatican, recruited from a group of Swiss towns and villages that for centuries have provided soldiers for the popes.
But don't let the history and the beautiful Renaissance uniforms fool you. The Swiss Guard today is a modern force, with important duties within the Vatican -- from forming elaborate ceremonial pickets on special occasions and for distinguished visitors to fulfilling simple desk guard duty at entrances to Vatican City to protecting the pope on foreign travels.
And not just anyone can join: You must be Swiss, Catholic, male, tall (at least 5 feet, 9 inches), have an "irreproachable" reputation and have served at least two years in the Swiss army.
It is not an occupation for a lifetime, either. Most guards serve from two to three years before returning home to Switzerland.