HARTFORD – Few people have the opportunity to attend a Mass celebrated by the pope. Far fewer have the privilege to do so in his private chapel at the Vatican.
Mario Enzler is one of those people. He spoke in Hartford on April 29 about how his faith grew during the nearly four years he protected Pope John Paul II as a member of the famed Swiss Guard.
An only child, he is the son of an Italian mother and Swiss father. He served in the Swiss Army before applying to join the Swiss Guard because, as he joked, he thought the uniforms looked sharp and would help him meet girls.
His talk was entitled "I Served a Saint," and he spoke of how John Paul II "helped me to grow as a man in my faith" and in his appreciation of the priesthood. "The love of Christ was the dominant force in the life of our Holy Father."
In a talk that mixed humor with a serious message, he explained that "the popes have an army and that army is from Switzerland. The Swiss didn’t do just banking and chocolates. They were mercenaries" and highly valued for their military skills.
Members of the guard may serve a maximum of 10 years. They can marry after two years of service, but only if there is an available apartment for the couple within Vatican City.
The typical work week is 100 hours and many days involve split shifts, he said.
"When you are a Swiss Guard, you never go home. You become a citizen of Vatican City" and live there full time, Mr. Enzler added. The pay is modest at best.
"To be a Swiss Guard, it’s a mission. You get a call, you leave your family," he said. "Spending time in the Apostolic Palace in the presence of the Lord forms the soul of a Swiss Guard."
Depending upon their assignment, members of the guard may or may not be in ceremonial uniform. The pope always has two Swiss Guards alongside whenever he travels. The entire force numbers 100.
Mr. Enzler told a number of personal stories, some of them drawing laughs, about his experiences at the Vatican. But most were tales of faith.
"The first time I met John Paul II, I was doing my night shift" at a desk in the hallway outside the papal apartment from midnight to 6 a.m., he said.
At 3 a.m. he noticed that a light was on and went to investigate. It was in the tiny chapel next to the Pope’s bedroom and there before him was the Holy Father, kneeling in deep, intimate prayer, with one hand on the tabernacle and his forehead pressed against the back of that hand.
Mr. Enzler quietly backed away so as not to disturb him. A couple of hours later, a cardinal came down the hall and invited him to attend the 5:30 Mass that would be celebrated by the pope. He was one of only six people present.
The Mass was truly special, but what impressed him the most was how the Holy Father had spent two and a half hours in prayer to properly prepare himself for the Mass.
"I saw the presence of the Lord in that small chapel," he said.
Later that day, the pope approached him in the hallway and invited Mr. Enzler to join him the next time he was in intimate prayer. He had somehow sensed the guard’s presence outside the chapel.
On Good Friday, the Swiss Guard selects a few people from among the crowd at St. Peter’s Basilica to have their confessions heard by the pope. On one occasion, the last person in line was a pregnant woman who went into labor and had to be rushed to the hospital.
The sergeant of the guard ordered Mr. Enzler to take her place. He was a little uneasy about this because the penitents were supposed to come from the congregation, but he followed orders.
As he started his confession, the Holy Father spoke up from the other side of the darkened confessional and said, "I know this voice." He smiles about it now.
He estimated that during his career, he saw as many as 750 world leaders pass before him in the waiting room outside of the pope’s office, all waiting for a personal audience with the leader of the Roman Catholic Church. They included heads of state, the Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa.
That list may sound impressive, but "I learned in the Vatican that the biggest leader in the world is Jesus Christ."
Mr. Enzler now serves as headmaster of the New England Classical Academy, a school in the Catholic tradition, in Claremont, N.H. His talk was held at the Polish National Home and sponsored by the Polish Cultural Club of Greater Hartford.