VATICAN CITY — By now, news that Pope Francis has fired yet another Vatican big shot is hardly shocking. This is a pope who has been rolling heads since he came to power in March 2013. But the latest casualty in the reforming pontiff’s line of fire might prove risky for more than him.
According to a brief announcement in the Vatican’s daily newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, Col. Daniel Anrig, the 40-year-old father of four who heads the elite Swiss Guard army is being relieved of his post effective Jan. 31, 2015. The Vatican has not issued an official word on just why the pope dismissed his army commander, but Vatican experts quickly pointed to the fact that Anrig was a heavy-handed leader who demanded that his forces stay in fighting shape despite the pope’s pleas to lighten up. There are secondary reports that an expensive renovation of his penthouse apartment above the spartan Swiss Guard barracks was the tipping point.
Considering the ample threats against Pope Francis by the likes of ISIS and others, discipline in one’s army would seem a strength, not a weakness. Anrig was a leading criminal investigator for the Swiss state police until he was recruited to the Vatican in 1992. He quickly moved up the ranks and was appointed in 2008 as commander by Pope Benedict XVI, who at the time said he “felt safe” knowing Anrig was in charge. But Francis has never shown much concern for his personal safety, once famously telling his bodyguards that the armored car was for them, not him.
A lighter hand at the head of the Swiss Guard could ultimately mean a more relaxed approach to security throughout the Vatican, according to Alessandro Panso, the head of Rome’s city police, who recently expressed concern that they are far more worried about Vatican security outside its walls than anyone inside the Holy See. Tens of thousands of tourists visit St. Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican museums, and wander through St. Peter’s Square every day. Less security puts them on the front line of any major threat if the Vatican’s own security fails.
Vatican expert Marco Tosatti, who writes a popular Vatican Insider column in Turin’s La Stampa newspaper, cites what were apparently differences between the Swiss Guard and the Gendarme, the Vatican’s police force that handles overall security and surveillance of Vatican City. The Gendarme deals directly with everything from day-to-day petty crimes to international terrorist threats. The Swiss Guard instead protects the gates and entrances into Vatican City and is responsible for the pope’s personal safety. According to Tosatti, Anrig apparently wanted both security forces to tighten up security and was trying to pressure the Gendarme to buck up. “This tension was not well received at the Vatican,” according to Tosatti. “Perhaps the growing tension forced the decision to solve the problem with a stroke of the axe—a method which, in the Vatican, is no longer surprising.”
Since the news of Anrig’s unexpected departure, stories have been swirling around Rome about his harsh style, including a tale about Francis waking up early one morning to find a sentry who had stood guard at his bedroom door all night long. As the story goes, Francis told the man to at least get a chair, to which he replied he could not defy Anrig’s orders. Francis then supposedly told the officer that he was the one giving orders now and ordered a cappuccino for the Swiss soldier. Francis has also broken protocol by making an effort to get to know the Swiss Guards who protect him personally, even shaking their hands in blatant defiance of the customary military salutes and aloof attitude.
Even with a new leader, the Swiss Guard army will very likely still do its job. After all, it has been protecting popes for more than 500 years, and is often inaccurately portrayed as largely ceremonial. Their nine-foot steel pikes and whimsical striped uniforms may look good in vacation photos, but according to the Vatican, the troops in the world’s smallest army are trained annually in both throwing and stabbing with the weapon, should they need to protect the pope. Many are specially trained martial artists and marksmen whose military arsenal includes a vast array of lethal concealed weapons that extend far beyond their pikes and pointed metal helmets. They also vow to give their lives to protect their boss.
Still, they are perhaps best known for their colorful striped suits, which, according to the Vatican, were not designed by Michelangelo as is often reported. The Swiss Guard have also been implicated in what has been reported to be a gay sex ring operating inside Vatican City, and in 1998, a subordinate officer Cedric Tornay shot his Swiss Guard captain and wife, and then committed suicide under conspiratorial circumstances that have still not been resolved.
Before ousting Anrig, Francis hinted publicly that he wanted a kinder, gentler army, filled with soldiers who are more “brotherly” and less combative, which was apparently impossible under Anrig’s heavy-handed authoritarian style. In September, Francis told the Swiss Guard and the Gendarme that the only real threats the Vatican faces are from within. In a Mass for his security teams, he said he wanted them to be more than protectors of property. “There are bombs in here, very dangerous bombs in here,” he said. “Please, keep your eyes open, because in the darkness of so many wicked lives, the enemy has sown weeds…. The worst bomb inside the Vatican is gossip, threatening the life of the church and the life of the Vatican every day.” A softer approach to security likely won’t help win that battle either.