Protecting the Pope: Insights from a former Swiss Guard

"If the pope cannot minister to the people, he in a sense ceases to be the pope," says Andreas Widmer, "Thus doing security for a pope is different than doing it for a head of state."

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.

As 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 (

I 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 the Vatican?

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?

Widmer: On 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 drawn—guarding the anteroom of the pope’s private apartments in the hours before Midnight Mass—I wouldn’t even be able to celebrate Christmas with the other guards.

All afternoon, 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 listening in.

Then my father put my mother on the phone. I didn’t stand a chance.

She 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.

After that, 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 heavenly vision.

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.

I 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.

Yet 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?

Widmer: It 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.

Do 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?

Widmer: I 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 questions.

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.

Sometimes 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?  

Widmer: Remember 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.

When the pope travels aboard what is the usual way the pope’s personal security works with the security detail of the host country?

Widmer: The 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 teaching business? 

Widmer: Good question! I never thought I’d end up as a professor.

I 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?

Widmer: That 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)

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About John Paul Shimek 0 Articles
John Paul Shimek is a Roman Catholic theologian and a specialist on Vatican affairs. In March 2013, he reported from Rome on the election of Pope Francis, the first Latin American pope in the history of the Catholic Church.