Celebrations are underway in Rome for the 500th anniversary of the Vatican army, known as the Swiss Guard. The anniversary celebrations will continue for six months with an art exhibition in the colonnade of St Peters square in March and a commemorative march from Switzerland to Rome in May.

The swearing in of the new recruits on 6 May this year will take place in St Peters Square rather than in the usual privacy of the courtyard of S. Damaso inside the Vatican, and that evening there will be a firework display. Concerts at the Vatican have been planned for three consecutive evenings that week.

On 22 January 1506, with the blessing of Pope Julius II, 150 Swiss mercenaries entered the Vatican to be of service to the pope. Their moment of greatest glory came 21 years later in 6 May 1527 during the sack of Rome by the army of the Emperor Carlo V. As Swiss soldiers stood to fight the emperors army in front of St Peters basilica the then pope Clement VII escaped to the safety of his fortress, Castel S. Angelo, close by. Out of the 189 soldiers who fought to save the pope only 42 survived.

To this day only unmarried Swiss Catholic citizens who have completed their military service in Switzerland are admitted to the Guard. New recruits to the 100 strong force are sworn in every year on 6 May, the anniversary of the sack of Rome, when they swear to serve the reigning pope and the college of cardinals. The guards may serve from 2 to 25 years and they wear a distinctly renaissance uniform of blue. Although they appear to be armed only with a sword and a halberd, since the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II in 1981 they are trained in unarmed combat as well as in the use of modern weapons.

Recent history has not been happy for the Guard. On 4 May 1998 the newly appointed commander Alois Estermann and his Venezuelan wife were found shot dead in their home in the Vatican, along with the body of a young guard, Cdric Tornay. The official Vatican report named Tornay, who is alleged to have committed suicide, as the murderer. Tornays family still contest the accusations.

Since the deaths there have been changes in the screening procedures for candidates to the Swiss Guard and reforms to the training procedures. Finding new recruits is not easy.