Pope's bodyguards turn 500

Everyone who visits the Vatican notices the colorfully dressed Swiss Guards who provide security for the Pope. This year marks the 500th anniversary of this elite military unit. And Robert Royal has written The Pope's Army (Crossroad) to celebrate their history.

According to legend, Michelangelo designed the uniforms, but no one really knows who created them. The outfits are pictured in frescoes by Raphael (1483-1520), and in the early 20th century, the Swiss Guards used those paintings to recreate the original costumes.

The Swiss Guards' colorful history begins with Pope Julius II, who also commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Julius inherited a weakened papacy and he needed expert soldiers in order to help him regain his lost territory. At the time, the Swiss were known as the best fighters.

Here are a few highlights from Royal's history:

  • In 1527, the Swiss Guards saved the life of Pope Clement VII when the Holy Roman Emperor sacked Rome and attacked the Vatican. The Guards rushed Clement to a secret passageway that led to the fortified Castel Sant'Angelo, while one of his cardinals held up a purple cloak to hide him from view.

  • In 1943, during World War II, German bombs struck the Vatican wine cellar and broke about a hundred bottles of fine cognac. There was a pool of liquor six inches deep, and the Swiss soldier who discovered the damage fetched his fellow soldiers to make good use of what might have been a tragic waste.

  • With the popes' eventual loss of political power, they learned to become pastors to the world. As a result, the role of the Swiss Guard changed from a military to a ceremonial one. Nevertheless, in an age of terrorism, the Guard still needs to protect the Pope's life. In 1970, an assassin tried to kill Paul VI in Manila. And in 1981, another assassin assaulted John Paul II in St. Peter's Square.
From Jan Hus to techno

It's not unusual to hear Christians complain when old European churches are turned into nightclubs, restaurants, museums, or even one-of-a-kind dwellings. But who would have expected a group of nearly 100 university students to stage a protest march over a former church building? That's what happened this spring in Prague, Czech Republic.

According to the Prague Post, St. Michal's Church in Prague's Old Town is one of hundreds of Czech church buildings that have languished in disrepair. Neither the government nor the Catholic Church has the funds to maintain these historic buildings.

In 1948, the Communists nationalized all church properties in Czechoslovakia. By the mid-'80s, the 800-year-old St. Michal's was in the hands of the National Library, which lacked the money to keep it in repair. To preserve the building, which is officially listed as a cultural heritage site, the Library sold it to a company that planned to turn the building where proto-reformer Jan Hus once preached into a bank.

As plans for the bank unraveled, events turned toward the weird. The new owner transformed the building into St. Michal's Mystery, a tourist attraction featuring 14 multimedia presentations of Franz Kafka's nightmares. When the tourist season waned, he rented the facility out for private parties, which critics say included techno parties and stripteases.

St. Michal's hasn't served as a church for over 200 years. (The last Mass was celebrated there in 1786.) Since then, it has served as a store, a pub, a crystal shop, and a café. But for Prague university students, some things are just over the top—and that includes techno parties in a historic church.

Sinai monastery comes to L.A.

This fall you can make a pilgrimage to a holy site—by visiting an art museum. In a groundbreaking exhibition, the J. Paul Getty Museum will recreate the ambiance of
St. Catharine's monastery in Egypt, one of the oldest monasteries in the world. Rare icons, manuscripts, and liturgical objects from St. Catharine's are traveling to Los Angeles where they will participate in an exploration of art and liturgy.

The monastery was founded in the 6th century by the emperor Justinian and has been in continuous use ever since. Thanks to its isolated location at the base of Mt. Sinai, St. Catharine's held out during the iconoclastic controversies of the 8th and 9th centuries during which monks were persecuted and icons were smashed. Thus their collection contains rare pre-iconoclastic icons, including a 6th-century icon of St. Peter.

Since at least the 5th century, Eastern Christians have used icons devotionally to communicate theological truths, to honor Christ and the saints, and ultimately to direct their affections to God.

The exhibition, "Holy Image, Hallowed Ground: Icons From Sinai," is broken into three sections: "Holy Image" will focus on icons, "Holy Space" will depict the role of devotional objects in the liturgy, and "Holy Site" will feature a film of Easter services at St. Catharine's. The exhibition opens November 14 and continues through March 4, 2007.  For more information, visit www.getty.edu/museum/.

Every knee shall bow?

In the 17th century, English Puritans rejected kneeling at Communion because they thought it implied "Romish" idolatry. But today, some Roman Catholics are challenging their bishop in order to be allowed to kneel in church. Last spring the Los Angeles Times reported that the archdiocese of Orange County, California, has instructed its congregants to stand rather than kneel at certain moments of the Communion service, but many are refusing to get off their knees.

The conflict reveals two opposing ideologies. The "modern" camp views kneeling as a remnant of feudalism that should be exchanged for standing, which, the archdiocese says, better reflects "human dignity … that we are made in the image and likeness of God." The "traditional" camp believes kneeling is superior because it is submissive, reverent, and worshipful. As one parishioner said, kneeling is praying "with our bodies, not just our minds."

Debates over kneeling aren't new. Although many Christians by the second century believed kneeling was too solemn for Sunday services, not everyone agreed. Tertullian, writing about the conflict, said that he hoped "the dissentients may either yield, or else indulge their opinion without offense to others." In the early Middle Ages, the Western church introduced more kneeling when it placed greater emphasis on Christ's presence in the Mass.

The official change came four years ago when the Vatican instructed, "The faithful kneel … unless the Diocesan Bishop determines otherwise." Now that some U.S. bishops are removing the posture altogether, new churches often don't have kneelers and some older churches are eliminating theirs. For the devoted traditionalist, this makes for sore knees.