The Catholic University of America

Feb. 22, 2013

Former Swiss Guard Shares Papal Insights

  Widmer shakes hands with Pope John Paul II

Andreas Widmer shakes hands with Pope John Paul II.

All photos courtesy of Andreas Widmer

On a bookshelf in Andreas Widmer’s office sits a framed photo of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, whose back is to the camera, holding a crucifix as Pope John Paul II bends to kiss it.

The photo was taken on the last Good Friday of Pope John Paul II’s papacy, just eight days before his death. Cardinal Ratzinger would be elected pope by the College of Cardinals in April 2005, just 17 days after the former pontiff’s death.

Widmer has a more-than-usual connection to both of the men in the photograph. For two years during Pope John Paul II’s papacy he served as a member of the Swiss Guard, the Pope’s personal team of bodyguards, charged with protecting him at the Vatican and abroad. Since the guard’s founding in 1506, it has retained many of its traditions, including its legendary uniforms and ancient customs.

Widmer, now director of entrepreneurship in the School of Business and Economics at Catholic University, has recently released a book, The Pope and the CEO, in which he relates the lessons he learned from his close contact with Pope John Paul II during the years he spent protecting him and how he has applied these lessons to his career as a successful entrepreneur and CEO.

But during his years living and working in the Vatican, Widmer also came to know then Cardinal Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict XVI, from a unique and personal perspective.

“He was such a close collaborator of Pope John Paul II, so I saw him a lot,” Widmer said. “He was nowhere near my close friend or anything, but we were on friendly terms.” When Widmer left the service of the Swiss Guard in 1988, Cardinal Ratzinger offered to sign Widmer’s copy of Introduction to Christianity, the future pope’s seminal work on the roots of the faith.

Widmer Swearing In  
Widmer’s three raised fingers symbolize the Trinity.  

Last week, Pope Benedict XVI announced that he is going to abdicate the papacy on Feb. 28.

“There is much more to [Pope Benedict] than meets the eye. He’s a very deep and deliberate man,” Widmer said. “He has a deep sense of who we are today and what the culture is like, and he has a vision for the future. This is a keenly aware man who acts in the context of the overall story.”

Widmer said that in his interactions with Cardinal Ratzinger, he was most impressed by his humility in combination with his intellect.

Every day at the same time, standing guard in St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican, Widmer witnessed Cardinal Ratzinger crossing from his quarters on one end of the square to the Vatican offices on the other. The cardinal was so punctual in this ritual that people gathered at the appointed time to meet or catch a glimpse of the famous theologian.

“He could have walked inside the Vatican, where [the public] isn’t allowed, but he didn’t do that. And it wasn’t like a kind of celebrity meeting; he was almost amazed that people knew who he was,” Widmer said. “He always had this old beat-up leather briefcase and the little beret that he wore and that’s how he would go back and forth every day…He was just the humblest of persons.”

Pope Benedict XVI’s reputation as a scholar was established before he became pope, and during his eight years in the papal office, he has written prolifically. His works include three papal encyclicals — major teaching documents — and a popular trilogy on biblical interpretation read by scholars and laypeople alike.

As a Swiss citizen, Widmer met the criteria for the Swiss Guard and joined at the age of 20 after spending the required year of service in the Swiss military. He said he joined “for all the wrong reasons,” looking for adventure rather than a deepening of his Catholic faith.

As his book testifies, the experience of direct encounter with the pope ended up hugely impacting his life and faith.

  Widmer (far left) and other Swiss Guard members with St. Peter’s Basilica in the background.

“He [Pope John Paul II] didn’t convince me of the faith through anything he said. He convinced me of the faith by who he was, what he did … I eventually thought, ‘Whatever that guy has, that’s what I want,’” he said. “That’s what evangelization is all about.”

A conclave, or a closed meeting, of the College of Cardinals will be called to elect the next pope. Speculation on who the new pope will be has largely missed the mark, according to Widmer.

“None of [the cardinals] want to go in there and become the pope ... Politics and power and all of these secular terms … are completely misplaced. This is a faith-based event, not a political event,” he said.

“Think of this, the person who’s the pope believes what the Church teaches, [namely, that he] is responsible for one and a half billion souls … And it’s not only that you’re responsible for those souls; you take it seriously.”

“If you look at the papacy through secular eyes, it makes no sense. It’s like looking at my marriage without the eyes of love,” he said.

Two of Widmer’s nephews have served as members of the Swiss Guard under Pope Benedict XVI. They have been similarly impacted by this close proximity to the successor of Peter, Widmer said.

“The beauty of Pope Benedict is he is a great example of integrating faith and reason: one of the smartest people you could meet, with profound faith,” Widmer said. 


More news from CUA