Pope Benedict XVI to give blessing to mark anniversary of Swiss Guards

Pope Benedict XVI was to bless about 70 ex-Swiss Guards on Thursday, at the end of a re-enactment of a march completed by the first members of the elite corps 500 years ago.

The 723-kilometer (450-mile) march by the former guardsmen started in the Swiss town of Bellinzona on April 7. It is part of a series of events, including concerts and exhibits organized in Italy and Switzerland marking the 500th anniversary of the formation of the Swiss Guards.

The march commemorates the journey made by the first group of 150 Swiss mercenaries, who were summoned by Pope Julius II in 1706 to protect him and the Vatican.

The pope will give his blessing in St. Peter's Square at 1500 GMT. Earlier this year, Benedict had thanked the Swiss Guards for guarding pontiffs for the centuries.

In 1506, Pope Julius II summoned the first 150 Swiss mercenaries to protect him and the Vatican in his temporal battles.

The guards, outfitted in their trademark halberds, crimson-plumed helmets and gold-and-blue striped uniforms, provide ceremonial guard duty, assist at Vatican functions and help protect the pope.

The ceremonies officially end May 6, when the latest cadets are sworn in and take the oath to protect the pope.

Each recruit must have completed mandatory Swiss military service, be a Catholic between the ages of 19 and 30, have an impeccable reputation and agree to sign up for at least two years, reports the AP.

I.L.