Thierry Roch, a former member of the Pontifical Swiss Guard that provides security for Pope Francis at the Vatican, has been visiting Alabama, speaking at churches.
Roch, 24, joined the Swiss Guard in February 2017 and served through May this year. The Swiss Guard became the security for Pope Julius II in 1506 and has been in continuous operation since then. Since a failed assassination attempt against Pope John Paul II in 1981, the guard has re-emphasized its real security purpose just as much as its ceremonial role. The guards must go through basic training with the Swiss Armed Forces.
The Swiss Guard defended Rome against a military attack in the Sack of Rome in 1527, allowing Pope Clement VII to flee during the War of the League of Cognac.
Roch said he had frequent encounters with Pope Francis, often standing guard just outside the door of his personal quarters.
“We feel privileged to have that duty,” Roch said. “We have a lot of job satisfaction. It strengthens our faith.”
Pope Francis maintains a demeanor of holiness, Roch said. “He was so cheerful, so happy when he rises at dawn every day,” Roch said. “His behavior is the same for all people. Every person has the same dignity. I’ve never seen him moody, or in a bad mood. He was always nice to us.”
The Swiss Guards are instructed not to speak to the pope unless spoken to, but the pope often initiated conversations, asking Roch and other guards how they were doing.
He would give them books as personal gifts from his library, Roch said. He said he once told Pope Francis that it was his grandmother’s 80th birthday, and the pope signed a book for her wishing her happy birthday.
Roch grew up in Fribourg, Switzerland, where he’s disappointed that his homeland has been de-emphasizing Christian faith.
“In Switzerland we are living a very secular life,” Roch said. “Young people don’t go to church as much as they did in the past. Society is becoming materialistic. Young people don’t have a spiritual life anymore.”
Roch has been enjoying speaking to Catholic youth groups in Alabama, although English is his fifth language, after French, German, Spanish and Italian. He enjoys talking about his two years at the Vatican. “We are kind of missionaries,” he said of his work as a Swiss Guard.
He’ll be speaking to the adult education class at the Cathedral of St. Paul on Sunday at 9:45 a.m. He’ll also speak to a Knights of Columbus meeting Aug. 15 at 7 p.m. and to a youth group at the cathedral Aug. 18 at 6 p.m.
“The young people in Alabama have great faith,” Roch said. “It has really encouraged me. You can really feel the Holy Spirit. It has given me a lot of hope in the church. The church is still living.”
Roch said he’s been inspired to return to Europe with a message of faith for young people.
“I want to bring that testimony back, that we can live with faith in our daily lives,” he said. “To know Jesus Christ is the most beautiful thing you can ever have in life. The people of Birmingham are giving me a new sense of strengthening my faith.”
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