The world’s smallest army – just 140 soldiers – considers the ‘unthinkable’

Rome: Resplendent in their striped knickerbockers and clutching murderous-looking halberds, they have faithfully defended popes for more than 500 years.

But the Swiss Guard, the world’s smallest army with just 140 soldiers, is considering the previously unthinkable – opening up to female soldiers.

Vatican Swiss Guards.Credit:AP

A bastion of conservatism even by the standards of the Vatican, the Swiss Guard has been a celebrated institution ever since its foundation in 1506. Recruits to the ancient corps must be single, practising Catholics of Swiss nationality, aged between 19 and 30.

They must serve for a minimum of two years, protecting the Pope and standing ramrod straight in sentry boxes outside St Peter’s Basilica.

Now comes a potential revolution – the tiny corps has announced that it is having new barracks built within the walls of the Vatican and that it will be able to accommodate female soldiers.

The existing barracks are so cramped that some members of the miniature army have to live outside the sovereign city state. Within the barracks, two or even three guardsmen have to share a room.

Swiss Guard recruits stands at attention during the swearing-in ceremony at the Vatican.Credit:AP

The new barracks, which will cost 50 million Swiss francs ($73 million), will allow the entire corps to live inside the Vatican and will feature individual rooms with bathrooms.

“It means that in future, if the decision is taken, we would be able to accommodate women as well,” Lieutenant Urs Breitenmoser, a spokesman for the Swiss Guard, said.

“That decision has not been taken yet and it lies with our superiors and ultimately Pope Francis. Regulations would have to be changed.”

A future move to recruit women soldiers would chime with the Pope’s insistence that women play a greater role in the life of the Catholic Church, Lieutenant Breitenmoser said.

Adapting the guardsmen’s helmets and breastplates to female soldiers should not be too challenging – these days they are made not of beaten metal but plastic, produced by 3D printers. The plastic helmets and armour are much lighter than their old metal counterparts, which were particularly onerous to wear during Rome’s hot summers.

“It was important to us that the new building provide space for women,” Jean-Pierre Roth, from the Swiss Guard Foundation which supports the corps financially, told the Swiss newspaper Tages-Anzeiger.

Ruth Metzler-Arnold, the president of the foundation, said: “I very much welcome the discussion on the question of allowing women to join the Guard. As soon as female guards are allowed, recruitment potential will increase.”

The force needs around 30 to 35 recruits each year.

The aim is to inaugurate the barracks on March 6 2027 – the 500th anniversary of the Sack of Rome in 1527 when 147 Swiss Guards laid down their lives in defence of Pope Clement VII.

Since then, the Swiss Guards, inheritors to the Swiss tradition of providing mercenaries to the rulers of Europe, have served more than 40 different popes.

The Telegraph, London

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