Swiss Guards and the Sack of Rome in 1527

What Is a Swiss Guard?

The Swiss Guards are a unit of the Swiss Army that is responsible for providing security for the Pope and the Vatican City State. They were founded in 1506 by Pope Julius II, who hired[1] a group of Swiss soldiers to protect him and the Church’s territorial land.[2] Julius II granted them the title “Defenders of the Church’s freedom.”

The Swiss Guards are known for their distinctive uniform, which features a blue, red, and yellow striped uniform with a black beret and a prominent white ruff collar. The uniform is based on the traditional clothing worn by Swiss mercenaries during the Renaissance era. The weapon most associated with their uniform is the halberd.

Who Can Be a Swiss Guard?

First and foremost, candidates must be male and Swiss citizens who are practicing Catholics. They must be between the ages of 18 and 30 and at least 5 feet, 8.5 inches in height.

Candidates must also have completed their basic military training in the Swiss Army and have a good record of service. They must be unmarried and commit to remaining celibate during their service as Swiss Guards.

Additionally, candidates must undergo a rigorous selection process that includes physical and psychological evaluations, as well as an interview with the Commander of the Swiss Guard. Only a small percentage of applicants are accepted into the Swiss Guard each year.

Once accepted, Swiss Guards undergo several months of training in the use of firearms, self-defense, and other skills necessary for their role as protectors of the Pope and the Vatican. They are also required to learn Italian, which is the primary language spoken in Vatican City. Guards receive a very modest salary, thus those who choose this role do so for the protection of the Church rather than any material gain.

What Was the Sack of Rome?

The Sack of Rome in May 1527 was the combined assault of various European nations, including German and Spanish troops, who attacked and overran the city of Rome. The troops were under the command of Emperor Charles V, who was fighting against the Papal States, led by Pope Clement VII. The Pope had sided with Charles’ enemy, the French, in the ongoing political conflict. The attack lasted from May 6 – May 14th.

During the attack, the Swiss Guards, who were tasked with protecting the Pope, put up a fierce defense. However, they were vastly outnumbered and outgunned, and many of them were killed or captured. It is estimated that around 147 Swiss Guards died during the Sack of Rome.[3] It remains the largest loss of life by Swiss Guards to date. In honor of their sacrifice, new Swiss Guards are sworn in each year on May 6th, the anniversary of the attack.

Let us pray for all who currently serve as Swiss Guards through the invocation of their patron saint – St. Nicholas of Flüe. He was born in Switzerland in 1417 and was a husband, father, and farmer before becoming a hermit and mystic.[4] He is known for having fasted for over twenty years, and he is revered for his deep faith and his role in mediating conflicts during a time of political and religious upheaval in Switzerland. While he preceded the formation of the Swiss Guards, he nevertheless is their patron saint.

Public Witness Matters

Seeing people pray the Rosary in public, seeing beautiful churches or roadside shrines, witnessing a priest or nun in public, or spotting a Swiss Guard in Rome are some of the many manifestations that can influence a secular people to think of the Catholic Faith.

We thank God for those willing to fight in defense of the Catholic Faith by the sword (like the Swiss Guard), by the pen (those apologists and writers who defend the Faith), and by prayer (those who say their Rosaries each and every day in answer to Our Lady’s request). While we cannot all be Swiss Guards, our prayers can nevertheless storm Heaven and seek to bring about the mercy of God on a world that is under constant assault from enemies to the Faith who live both in and outside of Rome today.

May Our Lady of Fatima bring about the triumph of Her Immaculate Heart and the Sacred Heart of Her Son!


[1] Funding for the Swiss Guard was originally provided by Jakob Fugger of Augsburg, Bavaria (1459-1525). He was Europe’s wealthiest man at the time. He was a faithful Catholic and knew it was important – politically, economically, and spiritually – to help protect the Papacy and the Church’s interests.

[2] In the preceding centuries, the Pope had spent seventy years in “captivity” at Avignon (1309-1376) and the Church had also suffered through the Great Western Schism (1378-1417). The roots of these problems did not wither away instantly. In the subsequent decades, the Papacy remained enmeshed in conflict (at times involving the Kingdom of France, the Holy Roman Empires, the Kingdom of Naples, and the Italian City States). Moreover, Europe was undergoing great change at the time. New industries, commerce, and banking were creating new classes, challenging traditional authorities, and transforming society. These upheavals generated uncertainty and conflict. It was necessary and common sense for the Pope to seek to strengthen the Papal States’ defense.

[3] In the 16th Century, the Swiss guard unit consisted of no more than 200 men. The losses suffered therefore represent 75% of the entire group being killed. It is likely that nearly all the rest were injured. Such catastrophic losses in any battle are rare; yet they witness to the Swiss Guard’s bravery and loyalty.

[4] St. Nicholas of Flue was also known for his wisdom and divine insights. One of his prophecies may be linked to St, John Bosco’s Dream of the Two Columns and to the Third Secret of Fatima. In his time, St. Nicholas forewarned: “The Church will be punished because the majority of her members, high and low, will become so perverted. The Church will sink deeper and deeper until she will at last seem to be extinguished, and the succession of Peter and the other Apostles to have expired. But, after this, she will be victoriously exalted in the sight of all doubters” (quoted in Catholic Prophecy, edited by Yves Dupont [TAN, 1970], No. 33).