With Pope Benedict XVI in Milan for three days under the watchful eyes of Vatican and Italian police, members of the Pontifical Swiss Guard set down their halberds and went off to do some volunteer work in earthquake-stricken northern Italy last weekend.
Lt Col Christoph Graf, vice commander of the Swiss Guards, told L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, that it was “a spontaneous act of charity and solidarity”.
Twenty members of the 100-strong corps left their barracks early on Saturday and went to the Emilia Romagna region, struck by two earthquakes in May. On Monday, the death toll from the second earthquake reached 17 after a corpse was pulled from the rubble of a factory.
Lt Col Graf said many of the guardsmen knew Bishop Francesco Cavina of Carpi, one of the stricken towns, because the bishop had worked in the Vatican Secretariat of State until November.
The guardsmen “wanted to make themselves available to help him”, he said, so they got permission from the commander of the Swiss Guards and from top Vatican officials.
Although they left behind their colourful Renaissance uniforms, the guards did do quite a bit of guard work, they provided security at the Carpi hospital and at a public health facility in Mirandola.
Lt Col Graf said the men also did some manual labor, drawing on their pre-Guard experience as carpenters, farm workers, mechanics, cooks, electricians and mechanics.
The vice commander said he thought the guards would remember their humanitarian-aid experience forever, not just because they were able to help, but also because “helping people after an earthquake is not very common in Switzerland”.
Mgr Alain de Raemy, chaplain of the guard, told L’Osservatore Romano: “These three free days that the young men offered to help the earthquake victims was the best way for them to spend their time.”
The guards paid their own way to the region, the newspaper added.