Swiss Guards celebrate 500 years protecting pope

The Swiss Guards are celebrating 500 years protecting the pope with a 27-day, 723-kilometer (450-mile) march from Switzerland to Rome next spring that recreates the historic arrival of the first pontifical guards in the Eternal City in 1506, officials said Tuesday.

About 80 former guardsmen will march from April 7-May 4, beginning in the Swiss town of Bellinzona and arriving in St. Peter's Square, following for much of the march an ancient route of pilgrimage and trade, the Via Francigena.

Along the road, the ex-guardsmen will visit convents and churches and will take part in several commemorative events, the commander of the Swiss Guards, Col. Elmar Mader, told a news conference. Once they arrive in Rome, they will be accompanied by current guardsmen who, flanked by an Italian military escort, will march into St. Peter's. The march is the highlight of a series of commemorative events in Rome and Switzerland that will commemorate the 500 years that the Swiss Guards have protected 42 successive popes.

The events get under way with a Jan. 22 Mass for the guards in the Sistine Chapel and will be capped May 6, when the latest members of the corps are sworn in during a pomp-filled ceremony in St. Peter's Square.

On Tuesday, the Vatican released commemorative 62 euro cent (73 U.S. cent) stamps that were jointly issued by the Vatican and Switzerland to mark the event. One of the stamps shows three guardsmen with St. Peter's Basilica in the background; the other shows two guardsmen playing the drums and a third looking over his shoulder, reports the AP. I.L.

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