More questions in Swiss Guard murders
Special to the National
Vatican flatly denies Swiss Guards leader was East German spy.
So read the headlines of all of Italys 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 Sees chief spokesman, Joaquín Navarro-Valls, didnt 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 Germanys 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 papers 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, Navarros dismissal of spy reports brought to mind his denials when it was reported that the pope had Parkinsons 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 popes 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:
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 hes 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 worlds most colorful military team. Said he, In the end, its still true that the habit makes the monk.
The writer lives and works in Rome.
National Catholic Reporter, June 5, 1998