A Swiss Guard is pictured as Pope Francis greets the crowd during an audience with the Italian Tennis Federation in Paul VI hall at the Vatican May 8. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
Andreas Widmer once served as a member of the Vatican’s elite Swiss Guard, protecting Pope St. John Paul II. Today, he teaches business at the Catholic University of America, whose campus was the site yesterday for the Mass of canonization of now-St. Junipero Sera. He is the Director of Entrepreneurship Programs at CUA and President of The Carpenter’s Fund. His book, The Pope & The CEO: Pope John Paul II’s Lessons to a Young Swiss Guard, explores lessons in leadership that he learned serving as a Swiss Guard and refined during his business career.
Pope Francis continues his visit to the U.S. many are asking questions
about his safety and security. With Francis, there’s always the chance
that he’ll deviate from his official itinerary or head into the crowd
for impromptu meetings among the faithful. Prior to the pope’s visit, I
spoke with Widmer about what it’s like to guard the pope.
Andreas Widmer (http://business.cua.edu)
think many people probably imagine that Swiss guards are very saintly
people. But, is that the reality? Or, are Swiss guards more human who
grow closer to Christ and His Church only after living and working in
Andreas Widmer: Many Swiss
Guard aspirants are attracted to the corps not because of religious
reasons but simply because they feel that being a bodyguard is a really
cool thing. I know that’s what I felt when I applied.
But being in
such close contact with the Holy Father and living in the center of
Christianity has a profound evangelization effect on many Swiss Guards.
This is of course amplified by being ministered to by the chaplain of
the corps. I would say that most of them experience a deep conversion to
the Catholic Faith during their service.
You met Pope St. John Paul II on your first night on the job one Christmas? What do you recall from that encounter?
Christmas Eve, 1986, I was one of the saddest Swiss Guards in the papal
palace. Bad enough it was my first Christmas away from home, but
because of the assignment I’d drawnguarding the anteroom of the pope’s
private apartments in the hours before Midnight MassI wouldn’t even be
able to celebrate Christmas with the other guards.
my thoughts were with my family in Switzerland. I’d never been away from
home for any extended period of time, let alone on Christmas, and as
the afternoon wore on, my depression grew.
Shortly before I went
on duty, I got in line with the other guards to make our calls home.
When it was my turn, I spoke to my father first. I did pretty well with
him. My voice didn’t crack and my face was expressionless. I was keenly
aware that there was a line of men standing behind me, watching and
Then my father put my mother on the phone. I didn’t stand a chance.
was crying because her “baby” wasn’t home for Christmas and, like most
boys, when my mother cries, I cry. I fought it as much as I could and
did my best to hide it, but the tears came regardless.
I slunk off, put on my uniform, and headed out for my solitary
Christmas Eve guarding the papal apartments. It was dark and lonely up
there, and there was nothing to do. That meant I had plenty of time to
mull over my sadness and think about my family celebrating Christmas
without me. I missed them terribly, and as the hours passed I worked
myself into a miserable state.
At about ten o’clock that evening,
I got a call on my radio. An officer informed me that John Paul was
leaving to celebrate Midnight Mass and would use my exit. I had just
enough time to straighten my uniform before the door opened. A warm
light from the apartment flooded my dark post. Then the pope came out.
With the backlight and his splendid white robe, he looked like a
As he came out, he paused about twenty feet from me. He looked at me for some time without saying anything. Then he spoke.
“You’re new! What’s your name?” he asked.
told him and he came closer, peering into my reddened eyes. He
immediately understood what was going on and said, “This is your first
Christmas away from home, isn’t it?”
I replied in the affirmative, barely holding back tears as I answered.
again, he stepped closer, pausing just inches from me this time. Taking
my hand with one hand and holding my elbow with the other, he pulled me
slightly toward him, looked at me with his deep gray eyes, and said,
“Andreas, I want to thank you for the sacrifice you are making for the
Church. I will pray for you during Mass this evening.”
What was it like to see the man you protected for so many years declared a saint in Rome?
underlines what a saint really is, namely something that we’re all
called to become. John Paul II was as normal a person as I’ve ever met,
only maybe even more fully human.
I was very happy to be able to be at the canonization in Rome together with my wife and son.
the Swiss guards follow the pope when he travels abroad? Will some
Swiss guards be with the pope this week as he visits Washington, D.C.,
New York, and Philadelphia? Are those demanding trips for the men who
guard the pope?
Widmer: Yes, the close
up protection of the Holy Father remains one of the key duties of the
Swiss Guards, no matter where he is. It’s part of what the Guards do,
they’re used to it.
Early on in his pontificate, Pope
Francis gave his security detail quite a scare. He broke out from under
the close scrutiny of his security and took to the streets. There are
even stories that Pope Francis sneaks out of the Vatican at night. Did
John Paul II do anything like that? What sort of legends and lore about
this sort of thing do you recall from your years as a Swiss guard?
read in Cardinal Dziwisz’s book that Saint John Paul and he would go
skiing incognito and how a small kid recognized them… telling his
parents, “Hey this is the pope!” … Which they of course waved off as
the kid having a lively imagination. He and John Paul then smiled and
quickly made it back to the car and left before anyone could ask any
I was not aware of that, but I was of course a regular
soldier, not an officer, so maybe I was just not privy to that
information during my service.
I do not know whether Pope Francis
left the Vatican the same way. I have my doubts. As you say, such
stories are quick to sprout but I think they are mostly just that:
wishful thinking… except of course until you find out from the secretary
that that one in particular was actually true.
security at the Vatican looks weak. It is so easy to get close to the
person of the pope. Is it a challenge for the Pope and the Swiss guard
to balance security and the spirituality of closeness to the people?
that the papacy is a ministry. If the pope cannot minister to the
people, he in a sense ceases to be the pope. Thus doing security for a
pope is different than doing it for a head of state. We were always told
that we aim to make the pope as safe as possible without interfering
with his ministry.
That said, don’t underestimate the level of
security. Just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there. I
am certain that the pope is very well and effectively protected.
the pope travels aboard what is the usual way the pope's personal
security works with the security detail of the host country?
host country takes responsibility for the overall security when a
foreign head of state visits. That is usual diplomatic protocol. The
visiting dignitary brings along a group of bodyguards but the general
security is not the visitor’s task.
Currently, you teach
business at the Catholic University of America. You've even written a
book on business leadership filled with lessons learned during your time
as a Swiss guard. How does one move from Vatican military life to
Widmer: Good question! I never thought I’d end up as a professor.
was an entrepreneur and CEO for many years and am now focused on
teaching the next generation of Catholic business leaders. It’s how I
feel God wants me to put my experience and to use all the gifts he’s
given me in my life.
What is the most important lesson you
impart to your business students that you've learned from Pope St John
Paul II and life as a Swiss guard?
business is a noble vocation. When we create, innovate, generate we
have the privilege to participate in God’s creative power. We imitate
God when we work, God the creator. Thus when we work, we don’t just make
more, but we become more.
A Swiss Guard recruit takes his oath during the swearing-in ceremony for 32 new guards at the Vatican May 6. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)