Yesterday afternoon, Benedict XVI appeared at the window of his private study overlooking St. Peter’s Square to greet and bless participants in a commemorative march organized by the Pontifical Swiss Guard to mark the fifth centenary of their foundation by Pope Julius II in 1506.

The former Swiss Guards participating in the march left Bellinzona, capital of the Swiss Canton of Ticino, on April 7 and covered 720 kilometers on foot to reach Rome, retracing the path followed by their predecessors five centuries ago along the old pilgrim route known as the Via Francigena.

Once in Rome, the former Swiss Guards crossed the city, stopping in the Piazza del Popolo where they were welcomed by the local authorities. There Pius Segmuller, former commander of the Guard and leader of the march, consigned the flag to Elmar Theodor Mader, the current commander. Then, preceded by a guard of honor and the band of the Swiss Guards, the former Guards moved to St. Peter’s Square where they were welcomed by representatives from the Italian armed forces and by forest rangers who had accompanied them during their commemorative march.

Benedict XVI greeted the Guards in German, French and Italian, briefly recalling the itinerary followed both by the participants in the commemorative march and by the first “Gwardiknechte” (the name given to these soldiers during the Renaissance).

“To greet you,” said the Pope, “is the successor of Julius II, whose name is forever linked to the Pontifical Swiss Guard. … I congratulate you for this wonderful initiative which reminds us of the valor of those 150 Swiss citizens who, with great generosity, defended even unto death the person of the reigning pontiff, writing with their sacrifice an important page in the history of the Church.”

“Considering these five centuries,” he went on, “we give thanks to God for the good your predecessors have done, and for the priceless contribution the Swiss Guard continues to make to the Holy See in our own time.”

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