VATICAN CITY, May 6 (Reuters) Pope Benedict thanked the Swiss Guards for 500 years of service as papal protectors on Saturday, telling the world's smallest army to carry on with courage and loyalty and be ''the true friends of God''.
The Pope led a mass in St Peter's Basilica to remember the 147 guards who died in the May 6, 1527, sacking of Rome, the army's biggest loss since its creation five centuries ago. The surviving members saved the life of Pope Clement VII.
The mass was a highlight of months of celebrations honouring the elite corps which protects the Pope and guards the Vatican.
''To be a Swiss Guard means to adhere without reservation to Christ and the Church and be ready to offer your life for this,'' the Pope said in his homily as guards in crimson-plumed helmets and striped gold and blue uniforms stood ramrod stiff.
''I express a deserved and deeply felt thank you and I call on you to carry on with courage and loyalty,'' he said. ''Be above all men of prayer, so that the divine wisdom make you the true friends of God.'' The mass will be followed later today by the swearing-in ceremony for new recruits, all Catholics between 19 and 30 years of age who come from the Swiss army. They have to be at least 174 cm tall to apply for the job.
The Swiss Guard was founded on January 22, 1506, when 150 Swiss mercenaries marched to Rome to serve under Pope Julius II, known as ''the warrior Pope''.
On Thursday, a small contingent of veterans converged on the Vatican after retracing that march with a 27-day long trek from Switzerland.
Today, the guard numbers 110 men. Many of its members still carry the unit's trademark weapon a halberd, which is a combination of spear and battle axe. More practically, some of them also have automatic weapons.
Beyond the sacking of Rome, the guards were also involved in minor skirmishes in 1870 when the Church lost the Papal States in the Unification of Italy.
Battlefields aside, the darkest night in the guard's history was a mysterious murder-suicide in 1998, when young guard Cedric Tornay shot dead commandant Alois Estermann and his wife and then shot himself, according to a Vatican account.
The Vatican said Tornay had acted in a ''fit of insanity'' because he was passed over for promotion but Tornay's family has contested some aspects of the Vatican's version of events.
REUTERS SY KP1750