“Where does the Pope live?” is one of the questions your kids would ask you whenever they see the pontiff on TV. If you’re not Catholic, chances are you found out about the Pope in your history classes. Whatever the case may be, the answer would be “Vatican City.”

Vatican City from the Vatican City Gardens. Krzysztof Golik CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Vatican City is one of the smallest internationally recognized states in the world. It has a land area of 0.49 kmor literally just 1/8th the size of Central Park in New York. The Pope, along with the Holy See, had treated Vatican City as the city state at the head of the Catholic faith since 1870. It officially gained independence from Italy on February 11, 1929. This was when the Lateran Treaty between the Holy See and the Kingdom of Italy was signed.

Today, the Vatican is one of the few states without a standing army or any official armed forces. So, how did they survive World War I, World War II, and defend themselves if they were to be attacked? More so, who guards the state during the normal, day-to-day occasions when tourists arrive within its borders?

The More Ancient Papal Defenders

No, the papal defenders isn’t a football team, contrary to what it might sound like. Before the Vatican state existed, there thrived the Papal States, otherwise known as the “Stato Pontificio.” These were parcels of land given to the Pope by kingdoms heavily inspired by Christianity.

Such leaders were Charlemagne – King of the Franks, Pepin the Short, and other Christian kings who were after the blessing of the Pope with their numerous undertakings. By the end of its time as the collective territories of the Pope until around the 1870s, as Italy had invaded them, it had amassed the majority of modern-day Italy.

Well then, how did it last so long throughout 756 to 1870 in terms of military capability? The Papal States had a military back then. It was composed of religious volunteers and mercenaries from allies around their territories. Some of these volunteers were from religious, military orders such as the famed Knights Templar, Knights Hospitaller, and the Teutonic Knights, all of whom fought in the Crusades.

In the 1860s, the Pope was protected by the Papal Army, which had two regiments from the Italian Infantry, two regiments from the Swiss, some Irishmen, and some dragoons. No, not dragons. Dragoons are light cavalry and formed a sort of police force.

A Papal Zouave in Uniform, 1860 (Wikicommons Media). Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Comte_Robert_de_Bourbon-Busset,_zouave_pontifical.jpg
A Papal Zouave in Uniform, 1860 (Wikicommons Media).

In 1860, Louis Juchault de Lamoriciere created a company out of some French and Belgian Tirailleurs. This quickly turned into the Papal Zouaves in 1861, which were composed of Belgian, French, Dutch, Italian, Canadians, Prussians,  Spaniards, British, and Swiss, to name a few. They were led by a Swiss Colonel, M. Allet. At their strongest, they had 4,592 men and fought in the Battle of Mentana, and defended the Papal States against the Kingdom of Italy. A papal navy also existed from 849 to 1878. However, it was very small and served no purpose as the present-day Vatican is landlocked.

The Zouaves soon disbanded. The French soldiers of the Zouaves joined the French Government of National Defense and were renamed the Légion de Volontaires de l’Ouest. This only left the Guardia Palatina d’Onore of the Palatine Guard, which existed since 1850 and usually just performed ceremonial functions for the Pope. Any remnants of papal military units were finally abolished in September 1970 by Pope Paul VI as part of the reforms following the Second Vatican Council.

So without a military to defend themselves against the Kingdom of Italy, the Vatican is a state all but defenseless against attack.

The actual power of the Vatican lies in diplomacy and some 900 million Catholics around the world. The Vatican maintained a state of neutrality in both instances where Pope Benedict XV immediately declared neutrality upon the outbreak of World War I and with Pope Pius XII doing the same thing.

Embracing Modernity

Pope Francis' Inauguration in 2013 with a Swiss Guard seen on the left (Wikimedia Commons). Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Francis_Inauguration_fc03.jpg
Pope Francis’ Inauguration in 2013 with a Swiss Guard seen on the left. FczarnowskiCC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

When the Pontifical Military Corps were disbanded by the Second Vatican Council in 1970, the Pontifical Swiss Guard, which was formed in 1506 by Pope Julius II, became the main security force of the Pope along with the Gendarmerie Corps.

While previously they were only relegated to bodyguard and ceremonial duties, an assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II in 1981 made the Swiss Guards upgrade their training. All the Swiss Guards from then on were Swiss nationals, all of which completed basic military training with the Swiss Armed Forces, and all must be Catholics. The Swiss are offered this honor in part because of its long-standing neutrality in the conflicts of European nations.

Pope John Paul with Former Inspector General of the Vatican Gendarmerie Camillo Cibin found on the left side of the popemobile, 2004 (Wikimedia Commons). Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:John_Paul_II_pontifical_audience_28-09-2004.jpg
Pope John Paul, with Former Inspector General of the Vatican Gendarmerie Camillo Cibin, found on the left side of the popemobile, 2004. Radomil at Polish Wikipedia.CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Gendarmerie Corps is the primary police force of the Vatican City responsible for public order and criminal investigations. They’re also the security team of the Pope when he goes beyond the Vatican. They are equipped with semi-automatic Glocks, the Beretta M12, and the Heckler & Koch MP5 sub-machine gun. Its Rapid Intervention Group carries Carbon 15 carbines and the Heckler & Koch FABARM FP6 shotgun.

There you have it! A brief history of the Papal military, or the lack thereof! Today, the Pope does not really need a standing military as he largely serves religious and spiritual functions today, mostly not involved in direct conflicts with other countries.