The Swiss Guard swearing in ceremony at the Vatican on May 6, 2019./ Daniel Ibáñez/CNA.
As the Pontifical Swiss Guard continues with plans to overhaul its Vatican barracks, there have been reports that the new design could accommodate women guards, prompting questions about whether the 515-year-old army could be poised to make a significant change to its admission requirements.
“First of all, let me say that the reactions of the Swiss press to my statements have been excessive,” Jean-Pierre Roth, president of the charitable foundation funding the Swiss Guard’s new building, told CNA via email.
Roth told the Swiss newspaper Tages-Anzeiger earlier this week that “from the beginning, it was important to us that the new building provide space for women.”
The roughly $60 million building project includes plans to expand the living quarters for guardsmen, some of whom currently sleep in shared rooms or in housing outside the Vatican. The new barracks will allow each guard to have a private room with a private bathroom.
The British newspaper The Telegraph quoted Lieutenant Urs Breitenmoser, a spokesman for the Swiss Guard, who said that the individual rooms meant that “in future, if the decision is taken, we would be able to accommodate women as well.”
Roth explained to CNA that the building foundation is “planning barracks meeting the needs of the Swiss Guard in the coming decades. Who knows whether females will be integrated in the Guard in the future?”
“The decision belongs to the Holy Father. Our Foundation has no information about a possible decision,” he said.
To enter the Swiss Guard, a candidate must be a single Catholic male of Swiss nationality between the ages of 19 and 30 who is at least 5 feet, 8 inches tall.
Guards are allowed to get married while in service, and some of the guards live in family housing with their wives and children.
“A main objective of the project is to offer more apartments for married guardsmen. The barracks will have 25 apartments for families,” Roth said.
The renovation, which has been in the planning stages since 2016, does not yet have a start date for construction, though some reports have cited the year 2023. Roth said that the project is under discussion by the Real Estate Committee of the Vatican and then has to be approved by UNESCO. The work is expected to take several years.
Roth noted that many countries have women soldiers and police officers, so “it might be the case in the Swiss Guard.”
“As careful planners, we had to consider that development as a possible option,” he added. “We have thus foreseen single rooms for all non-married guardsmen and a flexible internal structure of the building allowing the creation of a women sector. It was just good sense and careful planning.”
According to the foundation, the guard’s quarters have only undergone minor changes since their construction in the early 1800s, leading to high maintenance costs and the need for major repairs and updates.
The new barracks are also necessary to accommodate growth, as the army expanded from 110 to 135 guardsmen several years ago.
Roth told CNA that the choice to have private rooms was in part because all day long the soldiers of the Swiss Guard “are in contact with the public or under public eyes. They also need some privacy.”
He added that it was much too early to speak about other changes that would need to be made to accommodate women guards, such as modifications to the uniforms.