Commander of Swiss guard steps down in dispute with Card. Bertone over the Pope’s security

ALL: take this with a grain of salt.  I am hearing from sources that most of this article from the Washington Times is rubbish.

For one thing, there is nothing about this in the Italian press so far.  This is just the sort of thing the major Italian press is into.

I am digging to find out more.


From The Washington Times:

Article published Mar 7, 2008
Vatican official steps down in battle over security of pope

March 7, 2008

By John Phillips – ROME — The Vatican official with primary responsibility for the safety of Pope Benedict XVI when he visits the United States next month has resigned in a turf battle between the Swiss Guard and a rival Italian security force over who gets to guard the pope.

Col. Elmar Theodore Maeder decided Wednesday not to seek a second five-year mandate as head of the pantalooned Swiss Guards, the smallest army in the world, according to Italian press reports independently confirmed by The Washington Times.

The disagreement stemmed from a proposal by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the powerful Vatican secretary of state, to deprive the Swiss Guards of their exclusive responsibility for security in the Apostolic Palace.

The building with a curved, column-lined facade that sits across St. Peter’s Square serves as the official residence of the pope in Vatican City.

Cardinal Bertone wants the Vatican’s other security force, the Vatican Gendarmerie, to guard the Apostolic Palace as well as other parts of the Vatican.

The change would end a centuries-old tradition of pike-wielding Swiss Guards protecting the pope, according to one newspaper report headlined: "Swiss Guard in crisis; The commander is leaving."

"Maeder was waiting to see if he was asked to stay for a second term, but he heard nothing and decided not to ask for an extension," a Vatican source told The Times. "Basically he is just fed up and decided to throw in the towel."

Col. Maeder is expected to remain on the job in Rome for several months until a replacement is named on recommendation of the Swiss Intelligence Service.

But his imminent departure raises the question of who will have overall responsibility for Benedict’s safety during the pope’s visit to New York and Washington next month, which is expected to include a papal tour of ground zero.

In the past, the head of the Vatican Swiss Guard always traveled with the pope on overseas trips and took primary responsibility for coordinating with local security services with support from a small team of Vatican Gendarmes.

Col. Maeder still is expected to accompany Benedict to the United States, said the sources, but Cardinal Bertone may want the Gendarmerie to play a bigger role in planning security together with American counterparts, Vatican watchers said.

The Gendarmerie was founded in 1816 when the Vatican still ruled over all of Rome and a large swathe of central Italy.

But in recent years, the Gendarmerie largely has had a police role under the command of the governor of Vatican City since the gendarmes were demilitarized under Pope Paul VI.

"Their role seems to have been growing for some time," the publication Secolo XIX wrote in a dispatch by its Vatican correspondent, Angela Ambrogetti.

The stress of defending the pope has led to a number of casualties in the past, raising debate about whether the Swiss Guard and Gendarmerie are anachronisms.

A young Italian Gendarmerie cadet, Alessandro Benedetti, was found dead from gunshot wounds in an apparent suicide in September.

In 1998, Vatican City was rocked by the triple shooting deaths of Alois Estermann, the then-head of the Swiss Guard, together with his Venezuelan wife and a young Swiss Guard lance corporal, Cedric Tornay.

The Holy See blamed Mr. Tornay for shooting the other two before turning his gun on himself.

There are about 150 Vatican Gendarmes in all on patrol in Vatican Museums, St. Peter’s Basilica and Vatican-owned buildings in Rome outside Vatican City. 

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Dob says:

    No way. This is so strange. The swiss guard have always protected the pope. I hope Pope Benedict puts his foot down on this.

  2. Terth says:

    I agree it’s strange. But they haven’t “always” protected the Popes. If so, they sure would have had a tough time in the first few centuries.

  3. Dob says:

    True Terth,
    I thought the swiss guard were under the Pope’s authority directly. Is the Vatican State not under the control of Cardinal Bertone? Effectively, is this a battle to pass the security of the Pope to a group that are not under his direct authority?

  4. Jonathan Bennett says:

    How sad. Maybe the Pontifical Swiss Guard is seen as an anachronism of the long-gone days of the dignity, ceremony and tradition that surrounded the Pope. There seems to be a real push among some to make the Pope look more like a modern head of state, a democratic president or prime minister, or the president of a corporation.

    This is quite the insult to the Swiss Guard. Has May 6th 1527 been forgotten? The Swiss Guards, numbering only 187, held off a German protestant army of over 5,000 long enough to allow Pope Clement VII and his court to escape from the Vatican to the saftey of Castel Sant’ Angelo. 145 of the Papal guards, including most of the officers, were slaughtered in the piazza. It is that when the commander died his wife took up his sword and fought in her husband’s place until she lay dead beside him, their blood running down the steps of St. Peter’s.

  5. Many in the Swiss Guard have given their lives to protect the Holy Father. But a ‘right’ to provide security based on foreign nationality, which excludes all others, is imprudent. Checks and balances are always good. Always.

    Here’s a bit from the end of Chapter 13 of Book I of the Trilogy, which I did not write merely for entertainment purposes:

    Don Hash had to fight his military instilled paranoia. […] He remembered a scandal that had been reported in all the Italian newspapers, and asked himself, “Could it be that the anti-terrorist mercenaries paid by the CIA in northern Italy without the knowledge of the Italian government had a few individuals in the Holy See?” He knew that some governments put the Holy See under frightful pressure to appoint bishops who, for instance, would do the bidding of those governments. They knew the Church had such influence that entire empires could crumble. He dismissed the idea that Vatican security could be so incredibly careless.

    This character in the story shouldn’t be so dismissive. Mercenaries sell for the highest price going.


  6. peretti says:

    When he disbanded the Palatine Guard of Honor and the Noble Guard, Pope Paul VI may have placed the Swiss Guard under direct control of the Secretary of State

  7. Matt Q says:

    And so it continues…

  8. Dob says:

    Fr Lorenzo,

    Would you not think that a privileged group from a single nationality with a long tradition of defending the Pope with their own lives would be far more trustworthy that a diverse one. The tradition itself coupled with their national pride would be very strong motivators. Not only would they have to betray their tradition but they would also bring disgrace on their nation if they betrayed the Pope.

  9. As I am to understand, the Swiss Guards are chosen from the cream of the Swiss Defense Forces. They are astutely trained in hand-to-hand combat and light assault weaponry. The commandant holds the rank of lieutenant colonel in the SDF, and is of noble birth.

    Not too shabby for an anachronism. Don’t let the pantaloons fool you. These men are what is known in the trade as “the real deal.”

  10. Who would you want guarding you: organized Swiss or bureaucratic Italians?

    Having lived in Italy, I’d prefer the Swiss Guard myself.

  11. It’s not necessarily a matter of competence or national pride or whatever. Has that kind of thing kept all clergy, including Cardinals, absolutely Catholic?

    It’s just that checks and balances are always good. Always. Since no one wants to be caught out by the competition, so to speak, variety adds an edge. This is just the way it works with our fallen human nature, however heroic one can be. The last one I would want in charge of security would be someone who couldn’t see this, opting instead for romanticised versions of reality pitted against the mere street thugs of history, even if those thugs were emperors of one stripe or another.

    Those who work in security shouldn’t just be on edge; they should be extremely on edge. As it is, there have been a number of grave security breaches in recent years. I know that from someone way high up in — how to put this — Italian national security, who told me things I already knew, but with incredible accuracy and detail. Frightening, really. They’re better than you think.

    We’re not just talking about being body guards, but protecting, for instance, if you will, trade secrets. Protecting a Conclave from electronic espionage (part of the new rules for a Conclave), for instance, is best done by multiple, independent, though trusted agencies, besides one’s own. It keeps everyone honest.

    Lest that all sounds romanticised, consider this: what would happen to a bishop, not a Cardinal, for instance, who would be elected as the bishop of Rome, but the very last thing that his country would want is for that bishop to be the bishop of Rome. I’m thinking of a number of countries where that bishop would simply go missing, forever. The Catholic Church has influence in the secular world, and the secular world knows it. We should know that too.

    Anyway, it’s not a matter merely of Italian or Swiss or whatever. You might be surprised about the nationality of those who are consulted on security.

  12. John Polhamus says:

    Be careful, Fr. Lorenzo, you’re starting to sound like me…in that that not all conspiracy theories turn out to be theories, but realities…only sometimes. I just don’t want you to get in trouble! ;-) I think what you’re hinting at is that it is just possible that this is a check against a discovered or possible infiltration of the Swiss Guard, who are not always as up-and-up as some would like to think. Very ocassionally nasty things happen within the ranks. Remember a few years ago when that officer killed his family and himself? What if it had been the Pope. Or what if…we don’t know, but we might – only might – infer that there is a reason for this, and nothing to do with simply tearing at tradition. That would seem a bit simplistic, don’t you agree?

  13. Gregor says:

    And perhaps we could refrain from all this baseless speculation when the only fact we know is that Col. Mäder, after ten years of service to the Holy See, is going to resign as commander of the Swiss Guard and wants to “begin something new in Switzerland”, as he himself has stated (he is a trained lawyer). In not a single German (including Swiss) news articles have similar speculations be made. And this article (in the Washington Times, are they Vatican Insiders now?) doesn’t strike me as too exact anyway – “the Apostolic Palace. The building with a curved, column-lined facade”? The Bernini colonnades are not the facade of the Apostolic Palace.

  14. Nothing against the Swiss Guard at all, zippo. Only praise from me. And certainly not anything against any individual. Absolutely nothing.

    All I’m saying is that competition, so to speak, is good, whether there is anything to complain about or not.

    If any of the Swiss Guard are reading this, I’ll give you a hint: follow up on occasional workers on extraterritorial property of the Holy See. What a fright!

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