The Catholic University of America

April 16, 2014

Former Swiss Guard Heads Back to Vatican – As a Pilgrim

  Widmer as a member of the Swiss Guard.

On April 23, Director of Entrepreneurship Andreas Widmer, his wife, Michelle, and their son, Eli, will board a plane headed for the Eternal City. Widmer has made the trip to Rome many times in the 25 years since he worked as a Swiss Guard for Pope John Paul II, but this trip will be different. Widmer and his family will be travelling as pilgrims, not as VIP guests. He won’t be calling any of his old contacts for favors.

“I always had privileged access to him,” Widmer says of Pope John Paul II, his former boss. “I was able to introduce my in-laws to him and my wife got to see him on her 30th birthday. Less than 24 hours after he died I was able to pay my last respects to him.

“But now, I’m on a spiritual pilgrimage,” he says. “It defeats the purpose if we go with privileges.”

Because of Pope John Paul II’s devotion to Mary, the Widmers are studying St. Louis de Monfort’s True Devotion to Mary in preparation for their pilgrimage. They will begin their journey here in Washington, D.C., at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception during Easter. In the days that follow, they will visit the four major basilicas in Rome.

When they reach St. Peter’s Basilica, they plan to arrive at 7 a.m. for Mass — which is one of Widmer’s favorite things to do in Rome. At that hour, priests from every one of the 30 Catholic rites gather at altars around the basilica to celebrate morning Mass. At one of these altars, Pope John Paul II is buried.

“The coolest thing about this pilgrimage is that we know a saint,” Widmer says. “Pope John Paul II was a normal person to me. He was my boss. To go to the canonization of someone you know is really amazing.”
Widmer and his family will awake early on April 27 and walk toward St. Peter’s Square with millions of other pilgrims.

After announcing the date of the canonizations last fall, Vatican officials said they expect the event to draw millions of people. Crowd estimates for Pope John Paul II’s funeral in 2005 indicated that up to 4 million people gathered. According to an Oct. 22, 2013, Religion News Service article, city officials estimate that even more may attend the canonization.

“For the canonization, the chances that we make it into St. Peter’s Square are thin,” Widmer says. “But the canonization is not a spectacle. It’s a spiritual event. Having visited for John Paul II’s funeral, I know that I want to be in that crowd. The atmosphere is something unique.

“Eventually the restaurants run out of food and the people in the crowd take care of each other. You get to know the people around you after spending so many hours with them. It doesn’t matter if we get close or not. I just want to be there.”

His son, Eli, just wants to be there too. At 9 years old, Widmer appreciates that Eli might not fully understand the devotions he and his wife are reading to each other to prepare for their journey. “But he insists on being present and being a part of the preparation,” Widmer says. Eli has also been listening to a biography of Pope John Paul II.

“The beauty is that everyone is in a spiritual journey on their own level,” Widmer says. “I’m happy for him to have his own experience.”

Widmer and his family will be in Rome through May 9. While there, he will assist at the annual swearing-in ceremony of the Swiss Guards.

MEDIA: Widmer is available for interviews while he is in Rome. For information on how to reach him, contact the Office of Public Affairs at or 202-319-5600.



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