“If the circumstances were such, I would sacrifice myself for the Pope,” Captain Roman Fringeli told me in his Rome apartment. “This was always my thinking during the trips.” The plainclothed Swiss Guard was one of two assigned to Pope John Paul II from 1987 to 1999.
During his pontificate, the soon-to-be beatified Pope John Paul II had a permanent team of five bodyguards. As with the others, Fringeli was fully trained and prepared to lay down his life for the pontiff during his period of service.
Originally from Basel in northern Switzerland, Fringeli accompanied John Paul II on 15 papal visits to Asia, Europe, Africa, and the Americas. For nearly four of those years (1995-1999), he was in charge of the Swiss Guard's security detail for the pontiff.
Now long since retired, Fringeli has fond — if somewhat agonizing — memories of accompanying the most traveled Pope in history. He vividly recalls struggling to keep back a lunging crowd in Nairobi, shouting at the military in Mozambique to prevent a mass of people from getting too close to the Pope, and facing the daunting task of protecting the Pope in front of a million-strong crowd in Seoul.
“I remember in Rwanda, during Mass, we had a warning of an airborne terrorist attack,” he said. “Can you imagine? And that was just four years before the genocide that took place there.”
On another papal trip he accompanied the Pope aboard an old chartered plane as it made three aborted landing attempts in Lesotho due to fog. After diverting to Johannesburg, the papal party drove the five hours to Lesotho only to arrive to the sound of gunfire as special forces rescued a group of hostages.
The Pope afterwards visited some of the wounded in hospital. “That was a special trip, terrible — John Paul II wanted to offer a message of peace and that happens,” Fringeli recalled.
But perhaps his most disturbing visit was to Berlin in 1996. Anarchists protested wildly, throwing missiles at the popemobile while others paraded naked as the Pope went past. “Suddenly these crazy people started throwing red balloons filled with paint at the windows of the popemobile,” remembered Fringeli who was standing at the back of the Pope's vehicle, trying to ward off the protesters.
He said he was sorry that German authorities allowed that to happen, and hopes Benedict XVI will not have to experience something similar when he visits Berlin in September.
Vatican protection for the Pope on papal trips has traditionally been provided by two Swiss Guards and three Vatican police. The rest of the protection is given over to local authorities who usually offer the Vatican security detail the use of a car.
The Vatican gave Fringeli and his colleagues a full program of the visit beforehand, but during his time he didn't carry a weapon, nor did he wear a bulletproof vest. “My protection was my body,” he said, adding that such protective gear would have been too heavy as a good deal of their work involves patrolling alongside the popemobile.
So instead he relied mostly on his eyesight and personal fitness. “I was always scanning around, looking for a sudden movement, someone running or jumping over the barricades,” he said. “That was my task.”
Fringeli has many fond memories of the late pontiff. “For me, John Paul II was a holy Pope — as all Popes of the last two or three centuries have been,” he said.
He noted how John Paul always thanked his security staff and said he was protected by the Virgin Mary who, he believed, directed the bullet away from his heart when he was shot in St. Peter's Square in 1981.
“He was a messenger of peace,” Fringeli added. “Some have said it would have been better if he had stayed at the Vatican more and not traveled so much, but for the Pope these weren't exciting trips — they had an intense schedule [that] lasted the whole day.”
He remembered how Africans would walk for days, some from Zambia to Zimbabwe, just to see him. Fringeli stressed that one of the reasons the Pope traveled so much was so that people, especially in poor countries who would probably never make it to Rome, could see him.
In his younger days, Pope John Paul liked to go on spontaneous walkabouts, which did not always endear him to his bodyguards. “It wasn't always easy traveling with the Pope,” said the former Swiss Guardsman. “But experience helps you very much.”
As for himself, Fringeli said that despite the demands of papal travel, he always found it deeply satisfying and his enthusiasm never waned.
“It was strange,” he said. “During the trip you'd get tired but at the end of it, I'd always be thinking, What could the next one be? It was like a drug.”
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