By Bettina Corke, Womens Feature Service
The Vatican is tucked away in a corner of modern-day Rome and at a short distance from the River Tiber. It is surrounded by very small streets dating from the Renaissance and Roman times on one side and wide modern streets on the other. Despite the Vatican regularly generating interest in the international press, for some residents the city merely evokes a rather masculine image – that of uniformed Swiss Guards standing guard in their colourful attire.
Salvatore Colella, an architect who lives in a small house a short distance from the main entrance of the Vatican, reflects, “I have lived here for 30 years and do not feel any connection with what goes on inside the Vatican. Sometimes I meet people who work there, not ordained priests, in the local shops… that is all the contact that I have with it. However, the one thing I am sure of is that it is a man’s world out there.”
Some months back, though, the quiet routine of daily Vatican life and the stereotypes it conjures was challenged when Daniel Anrig, a commander of the legendary Papal Swiss Guard, suggested on Italian television that “the Swiss Guard at the Vatican might some day be open to recruiting women” – even though he was quick to add that “the admission of female recruits remained far into the future”.
The Swiss Guards, a small force maintained by the Holy See, the diplomatic name given to the Vatican, is responsible for the safety of the Pope, including the security of the Apostolic Palace or the official residence of the Pope. It serves as the de facto military of Vatican City. The Pope is the ceremonial chief of these foot guards, who have been active since 1506.
At present, to be a Swiss Guard one must be Catholic, Swiss, single and should have completed basic training with the Swiss military. One is also required to have a professional degree or high school diploma, be at least 5.71 feet tall and between 19 and 30 years of age. In addition to carrying traditional weapons – a sword, a four-sided pole and the like – a Swiss Guard is required to carry pistols, sub-machine guns and assault rifles. Moreover, a potential guard also receives self-defence instructions, as well as basic instructions on defensive bodyguard tactics.
So how would visitors and tourists react to women guarding the Vatican? Lining up to visit the Sistine Chapel, Enrico Fracca, a young artist from Verona, takes a minute to consider the question before saying, “I am trying to imagine a woman dressed up in the uniform of a Swiss Guard. I love the colours and design of the uniform. I think that it would be great. Perhaps rather than being soldiers they should be cultural guides…”
Colella interrupts, “Twenty years ago when the Italian Police said that they were going to recruit women into their Security Services and we thought that this was a very strange thing to do. Now we accept it, we do not think that it is unusual at all to see women police with pistols, walking down our streets and driving police cars. I imagine that we could get used to the idea of female Swiss Guards at the Vatican as well.”
People opposed to the idea of female Swiss guards pose a number of queries: Where would these young women recruits live? Would they be permitted to marry? Would they be entitled to maternity leave? Is the recruiting of female Swiss Guards one way to make the Vatican a more gender balanced working space?
According to Robert Mickens, a journalist working at Vatican Radio, most Catholics… for them daily life means living within democratic structures. It also means that women, just as much as men, have an opportunity to hold power and authority. He goes on to say that most Catholics are aware that their Church is not a democracy (The Pastoral Review, April 2010.) So discussions are going on within the Church itself around these gender issues.
Robert Brown is a middle-aged engineer from Boston, USA, currently on his second visit to the Vatican. He is of the opinion that there are better ways to engender the work environment within the Vatican. This engineer goes onto explain, “I do not think that it is a good idea to bring young women into the Vatican as armed guards. I believe that more women should be active in the work of the Vatican and that its workforce should be modernised but I do not think that this matter of Swiss female guards should be considered as a way to modernise the Vatican. There are other ways that could be considered.”
A retired professor of Italian history and a Catholic, Maria Setta analyses the gender imbalance: “Pope Paul VI felt very strongly that things should change in the Vatican. He considered the women around him to be his co-workers and followed through on his decision to allow more meaningful participation by women. But because of his untimely death in 1963, five years after his Papacy began in 1958, the more conservative ‘male only’ forces within the Vatican regained power and control. From then on, and more particularly in 1988 when Pope John Paul II declared that matters requiring the exercise of power of governance be reserved for those in holy orders, i.e. ordained priests, all moves to permit women to hold key Vatican positions were blocked.”
Professor Setta is in fact in favour of recruiting female Swiss guards. She believes that while it will be an interesting sight for people who visit the Holy See, it may be a daunting change to implement within the 500-year-old force. “It is not easy to break down old rituals and traditions,” she says. Others visiting the Vatican echo her sentiments and even say that Anrig’s footnote on the change being “far into the future” could actually be interpreted as “never at all”.