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More questions in Swiss Guard murders

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

“Vatican flatly denies Swiss Guards leader was East German spy.”

So read the headlines of all of Italy’s newspapers 24 hours after a German paper reported that Alois Estermann, the newly named Swiss Guards commander who was murdered on May 4, had been a mole for the former communist country inside the Vatican.

Actually, the headlines were inaccurate. The Holy See’s chief spokesman, Joaquín Navarro-Valls, didn’t deny a thing. He merely stated, “The hypothesis is not even being considered.” He added, “This is not the first time inconsistencies are being said about an honest man.” Hardly a flat denial.

Which hypothesis was not being considered? That Estermann was a spy? That he was an informer for East Germany’s Stasi secret police from 1979-1984? That he sent back at least seven reports containing highly confidential Vatican information?

In fact, these were all part of the details the Berliner Kurier reported in its May 8 edition. Or was Navarro saying that the “inconsistencies” lay, not in the substance of the paper’s claim but in these details?

Before the Vatican spokesman even had time to issue his ambiguous response, reporters were already dishing out generous helpings of commentary and speculation from former East German informants, most notably the notorious super-spy Markus Wolf. Conflicting reports from a whole host of former secret agents raised questions as they cast doubts.

Meanwhile, Navarro’s dismissal of spy reports brought to mind his “denials” when it was reported that the pope had Parkinson’s disease, something that today nearly everyone -- many bishops included -- takes for granted.

Whether or not the spy charges or any other conspiracy theory is true, the bizarre deaths of the commander, his wife and the young soldier have fueled a new debate inside the Vatican: Is it time to rethink the need for the Swiss Guards?

Pope John Paul, for one, has full confidence in them. According to his secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, questions related to the existence of the elite 500-year-old army are not up for discussion. At the funeral of Estermann and his wife, the cardinal assured the Swiss Guards that they have the pope’s complete trust. “One cloud cannot obscure five centuries of honorable history,” he said.

Not everyone who wears episcopal colors inside the Vatican or in Switzerland, however, is as convinced as the pope and the secretary of state. Swiss bishops, who are charged with organizing the 100-man army and selecting its leaders, reportedly have already begun looking at future changes and, according to the secretary of the episcopal conference, Msgr. Roland Trauffer, are willing even to help pay for the corps’ revamping.

Among the changes being proposed:

  • Fatten up the Guards’ modest to low paychecks. Today if you’re one of the four soldiers who, after several years of loyal service, rises to the rank of senior officer, you might make as much as the people who answer the Vatican telephones, a meager $26,000 dollars per year. Newcomers in their first two years of service can expect about half of that.
    It’s no secret that an uninviting salary was an obstacle to finding a new commander for the corps. Bishops searched for more than a year, including a six-month period when the Guards were without a commander, before they finally named Estermann. To some candidates who possessed the right credentials, $30,000 seemed insufficient compensation for the burden of keeping the pope safe and the troops in order.
  • Change the aristocratic credentials required for the commander’s post. Not a few church officials quietly voiced embarrassment that in a post-Vatican II church, the Swiss bishops’ main criterion for a new commander was that the candidate be a nobleman. The prelates searched among Swiss nobility for the aristocrat that tradition requires, but no willing Catholic blue-blood could be found. Thus another icon of the old papal court seems destined to go the way of the peacock feathers, papal tiara and the sedia gestatoria on which the pope was formerly carried aloft around Vatican City.

For now the recently retired blue-blooded commander, 57-year-old Roland Buchs, has returned to the helm of the Guards, which he led from 1982 until last November. But he made it clear he’s a temporary substitute, eager to return to his government job in Bern, Switzerland.

An Italian daily recently reported that several Vatican officials are convinced that changes need to be made in the corps. But in a place where change takes place over centuries, if not millennia, the prelates were cautious, to say the least.

Cardinal Pio Laghi, former apostolic delegate to the United States who now heads the Congregation for Education, summed up the attitude by saying, “Every transformation comes in its own time.”

It is mainly just a few progressive voices in the Roman curia who urge drastic measures to transform the Swiss Guards into a corps more resembling a 21st century personal protection agency than a medieval palace guard.

However, like so many other issues facing the church today, especially those that depend directly upon decisions of the Holy See, the official said reforming the Swiss Guards, “will be difficult in this pontificate.”

Archbishop Alessandro Maggiolini cautioned that too many changes, like abolishing the anachronistic costumes, could diminish the appeal of the world’s most colorful military team. Said he, “In the end, it’s still true that the habit makes the monk.”

The writer lives and works in Rome.

National Catholic Reporter, June 5, 1998