Vatican City PD: Gendarmes continue centuries-old military tradition

IMAGE: CNS/Paul Haring

By Junno Arocho Esteves

police everywhere, Vatican officers write dozens of parking tickets and deal
with more than their fair share of petty thieves.

The Vatican’s blue-uniformed
police corps does not have the picturesque uniforms or the medieval halberds of
the Swiss Guard, with whom they work to protect the pope and Vatican City
State, but they have a 1,700-year history that is just as colorful.

The history — spanning times
of peace, war and even excommunication — is recounted in a new book titled,
“The Vatican Gendarmerie: From its Origins to our Days.”

The book, released Oct. 19, draws
from ancient records, archival documents and candid photos to chronicle the
history of the force, which traces its origins date back to the 4th century.
After the Diocletian persecution of Christians, the Emperor Constantine granted
them religious freedom and allowed Pope Miltiades to have an armed military

From the late 1300s to the
1600s, the Gendarmes Corps — as it was known — enrolled young men from
Corsica, because men there were considered to be particularly “proud and
courageous,” the book said.

But the face of the Vatican
military force changed following Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Italy in the
late 1700s. According to the volume, a majority of the members of the Gendarmes
Corps left to serve in the French army, a move that led to their
excommunication by Pope Pius VII.

In 1816, after Napoleon’s
defeat, Pope Pius issued an apostolic letter that brought significant reform to
the administration of the papal state, including a new force called the
Pontifical Gendarmes, now known as the Vatican Gendarmes.

Two hundred years later, the
“Activity of the Holy See,” an annual book of reports from various
Vatican offices, offers a glimpse into the actions, investigative work and
arrests that occur within Vatican City State.

In 2015, for example, Vatican
police carried out eight arrests. They also launched a pickpocketing-prevention
program in the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s Basilica and conducted
investigations into 58 reports of theft. Of those thefts, 19 cases were handed
on to the Vatican City court.

Throughout its history, the
Vatican police force also has worked to ensure the safety of the Roman pontiff.
Given the millions of people who gather in St. Peter’s Square or St. Peter’s
Basilica for papal events every year, that is no small task.

Protecting the pope while
allowing him access to pilgrims proved most challenging during a general
audience May 13, 1981. St. John Paul II was riding in his popemobile greeting
pilgrims gathered in St. Peter’s Square when Turkish gunmen Mehmet Ali Agca
fired four shots, severely injuring the pope.

In the ensuing chaos, Camillo
Cibin, then head of the Vatican police, tackled Agca as he was attempting to
dispose of the gun and flee. Cibin prevented another assassination attempt on
St. John Paul one year later when a former priest tried to stab the pontiff
during his pilgrimage to Fatima.

Cibin, who served in the
Vatican police force for nearly 60 years and was a bodyguard to six popes, was
dubbed by the Italian media as the “guardian angel of the popes,” a
title that remained with him until his retirement in 2006 and his death three
years later.

Coincidentally, the nickname
calls to mind the patron saint of the Vatican police, St. Michael the
Archangel, a saint Pope Francis has encouraged today’s Vatican police to emulate.

Like the archangel, a good
guardian “has the courage to get rid of demons” and has the
intelligence to be able to pick them out from the crowd. “He can’t be,
excuse my terminology, an idiot; he has to be quick on the uptake and alert,”
the pope said in his homily at a Mass for security personnel Sept. 27, 2014.

While Vatican police are no
strangers to occasional bomb threats — including six suspicious bags
intercepted in 2015 — Pope Francis warned them of one major bomb that they
must always be on the lookout for.

“The worst bomb inside
the Vatican is gossip,” which “threatens the life of the church and
the life of (the Vatican) every day,” the pope said, because it “sows
destruction” and “destroys the lives of others.”

Domenico Giani served as
Cibin’s deputy and now is his successor as head of the force. Like his
predecessor, Giani was an ever-present figure during the papacy of retired Pope
Benedict XVI and now watches over his successor, Pope Francis, as head of the
security detail.

In his preface to the book
detailing the history of the Vatican Gendarmes, Giani recalled the pope’s 2014
homily and confirmed that the officers’ vocation remains what it was centuries
ago: to safeguard the state so the church and the pope “can be free”
to carry out their mission.

“Faithfulness to the
pope, in and with the church, ‘Fides et Virtus’ (‘Faith and Virtue’) — our
motto — and following the plans of divine providence: this is the wish and
hope for today’s gendarmes and those of tomorrow, with our thoughts always
looking back to those who preceded us,” Giani wrote.

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