What is the Vatican Gendarmerie?
"How many military divisions does the Pope have?" Stalin hissed contemptuously at Yalta in 1945, annoyed by the international political influence of the smallest state in the world, the Vatican City, devoid of military divisions and equipped with a miniature army, two "Armed Corps": the Swiss Guard and the Corps of Gendarmerie.
The Gendarmerie has been in service for 202 years. The origins of the corps date back to medieval times, but the founder of the modern institution was Pius VII in 1816.
The assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II in 1981 brought the problem of security to the forefront, and the corps was reorganised.
The Gendarmerie operates 24 hours a day supervising public order in the Vatican and its extraterritorial areas (the Papal Basilicas of S. Giovanni in Laterano, S. Paolo fuori le Mura and S. Maria Maggiore, the Bambin Gesù Children's Hospital and the residence of Castel Gandolfo). It controls pedestrian and vehicle traffic and assists in papal celebrations, as well as public and private audiences.
Every day tens of thousands of people circulate in the Vatican: citizens, employees, scholars, the faithful who attend Wednesday audiences and ceremonies presided over by the Pope, tourists who crowd the Museums and Gardens, and finally those who go to the Pharmacy (open to anyone with a medical prescription).
The Gendarmes collaborate with the Swiss Guards (who protect the Pope in public events, at his residence and the entrances of the Holy See), but above all with the Italian law enforcement agencies, who provide support for training and investigative cooperation.
Given the threat of globalized Islamic terrorism that has plagued the world for years, the Gendarmerie has sophisticated technological equipment for security and has joined INTERPOL (the international criminal police organization).
The Gendarmes do not shy away from supporting those in need with funds as well as participating in humanitarian activities, such as rescue services after the earthquakes that devastated central Italy (L'Aquila 2009 and Amatrice 2016).
In St. Peter's Square, the only part of the state open to the public, the Gendarmerie collaborates with the Italian police, whose jurisdiction finishes at the beginning of the staircase leading to the Basilica.
The selection of the Gendarme, men "halfway between the sacristan and the military"
The corps is made up of 190 members. These are the requirements in order to participate in the selection to be part of the corps: male, aged between 21 and 25 years, a healthy and robust constitution, at least 178 cm in height, unmarried, (they can marry later) and a high school diploma. And obviously professing the Catholic faith, a fact attested to by a letter supplied from a pastor or a prelate.
The youngest members of the corps sleep in the barracks, those who still do not have a family and don’t live in Rome, and there is also a gym because the training of the corps is continuous.
The patron Saint of the Corps, St. Michael the Archangel, head of the heavenly army that fights against evil, is celebrated on the 29th September.
The Pope’s guardian angels
To learn more, there is the documentary “Guarding and protecting. La Gendarmeria Vaticana" and the text "La Gendarmeria Vaticana. From its origins to the present day", both from 2017.
Pope Francis has put great pressure on the Gendarmes with his careless protocol initiatives, due to the affection of the faithful and his willingness to be in close contact with them, and this has refined the skills of his custodians even further: he is not afraid of terrorist threats nor individual initiatives. When warned of the risks by the Secretariat of state, the Pope replied "I have the saints and angels that protect me!”