No doubt there are worse ways of making a living than by being a Swiss guard. You have the honour of protecting the pope; a tax-free salary with board and lodgings thrown in; most of the time the work is pretty easy; and you get to strut around in those catchingly colourful uniforms designed by Michelangelo.

But despite the prestige and fringe benefits, the worlds smallest army is having trouble attracting new recruits and risks dwindling away. The total number of guards currently stands at 98 12 short of a full retinue and new candidates are increasingly thin on the ground.

To make matters worse, the guards chief, Pius Segmueller, has decided to leave his post at the end of this month.

The guards have been going through a rough patch since 1998 when Segmuellers predecessor, Alois Estermann, and his wife, Gladys Meza Romero, were shot dead by a junior officer, Cedric Tornay, aged 23, who then turned his gun on himself.

The scandal stirred by the murders was huge and still rumbles on today. The findings of the Vaticans investigation, which suggested Tornay committed the murders because he harboured a grudge against Estermann for passing him over for decoration, did little to dampen the speculation. At the time the story hit the news, the Italian presss favourite alternative hypothesis was that the murders were a homosexual crime of passion. Tornays mother, on the other hand, denies the sex scandal theory and claims her son was the victim of a wider and more sinister plot which the Vatican quickly suppressed. Books have been written on the case, but we are still no nearer to an explanation that convinces everyone, and probably never will be.

Whatever the truth, the incident damaged the reputation of the corps and Segmueller recognises that to some degree it has put people off. However, he claims the recruitment problem is much more profound.

The guards employ rigid recruitment standards. Candidates are only accepted if they come from the Swiss cantons of Zurich, Lucerne, Uri or Unterwalden and are Roman Catholic not quite as easy as it sounds in a predominately Protestant country. They must also be male, unmarried, physically fit and in good health, willing to learn Italian, under 25, at least 174 cm tall, have done their basic military training in the Swiss army and, last but not least, be regular church goers and morally upstanding citizens.

No wonder theyre struggling to find people. As Segmueller himself said earlier in the year: Part of the problem may be that we have very high standards and a tough selection process focused on quality, not quantity. Furthermore, the 1.048 a month starting salary, while not to be sniffed at here in Rome, is relatively low by Swiss standards.

Segmueller, who is leaving the guards early to take over as police chief of his native Lucerne, says he wants to return to Switzerland for personal reasons. He has been in charge of the guards during one of the most difficult periods of their history, but he can take credit for having brought the corps into the 21st century, or at least a tad nearer to it.

The outgoing head of the guards has embarked on reforms to transform the corps into a professional armed force, incorporating training by experts from the Swiss ministry of defence. This is seen as particularly important given that after 11 September the Vatican and the pope are perceived as potential targets for Islamic terrorists.

Under Segmueller the guards have also taken their first steps towards multiculturalism. In May Private Dhani Bachmann, born in India but adopted by a German-speaking Swiss family at the age of five, became the first non-white person to be sworn into the corps.

The corps duties mainly involve guarding the four main entrances to the Vatican City, taking part in ceremonies and posing for photos. Plain clothes guards are responsible for the popes personal security here in Rome and accompany him abroad. Former commander, Estermann, was one of the guards who shielded Pope John Paul II in the 1981 attempt on his life.

The private army was set up in 1506 by Pope Julius II. He used Swiss soldiers as they were considered braver and more loyal than mercenaries from other parts of Europe, who had a nasty habit of changing sides mid-battle. They showed their courage during the sack of Rome in 1527, fighting heroically to save Pope Clement VII from the troops of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Only 42 of the then 190 members of the corps survived that attack.

Reversing the recruitment slide is the main challenge Segmuellers successor will have to face if the guards are to continue for another 500 years. Lets hope he succeeds: Rome would undoubtedly be a lot less colourful without them.