Standing in the shade of the obelisk, I paced back and forth. I had arrived early at the meeting place, not wanting to miss out on any minute of my appointment. I was excited and, strangely, nervous. Killing time with selfies against the backdrop of St. Peter’s Basilica, I got a text from Joanne just as she walked up.
We had only known each other for less than 24 hours. My dear friend and tour guide colleague Sarah Murdoch invited me to join her in meeting someone for the first time. “Sure, why not?” I said. “I’m always up for making new acquaintances.”
We met Joanne Bergamin for an aperitivo near Piazza del Risorgimento, just a stone’s throw from the fortified walls of the Vatican City and the place she currently calls home. Turns out, she’s an Australian who’s been living and working in Rome for a number of years, previously for “the Pope’s newspaper” L’Osservatore Romano and currently at the Institute for Entrepreneurship at John Cabot University. But also, she’s the wife of a Swiss Guard.
You can imagine how curious Sarah and I were to find out about what her life was like.
She’s a pretty normal gal: smart, savvy, entrepreneurial, classy, inquisitive, fun-loving and spiritual. And when love came her way via a handsome, shy, and dedicated protector of the Pope, she embraced that gift and accepted the life that came with it. She and her husband Dominic are citizens of Vatican City (Joanne is the first Australian to live there), and they reside in the barracks, just a long shadow away from the papal apartments. When it comes to attire and behavior, modesty and discretion are expected. And as part of Vatican rules for the Swiss Guard who choose to marry (and get approved to do so), Dominic, a commander in the guard, committed to extending his duty to the Pope for an additional three years beyond his original obligation.
Hearing the condensed version of Joanne’s life story—growing up in Australia, traveling to Europe with her parents, moving to Rome as an adult, converting to Catholicism and marrying a Swiss guard—fascinated me. But I wanted to know more. See more. Understand more. That’s when she offered me an opportunity of a lifetime: to go behind-the-scenes with her inside the Vatican. And when opportunities like this come your way, you simply do not refuse.
The next day, a couple of hours before sunset, we reunited. Golden yellows of the warm, late afternoon light bathed St. Peter’s Square. The crowds were thinning. The basilica would soon be closing. But that mattered little for us.
Just left of the church’s façade, we approached the guarded gate. While visitors, tourists and church-goers were taking pictures of the stoic Swiss soldiers, clad in the iconic and vibrant red, blue, and goldenrod uniforms, Joanne showed her identification and asked one guard’s permission to take a picture of me as I passed through the gate. “It’s always best and respectful to ask permission, rather than be caught in the act by the guard,” she told me.
As I walked between the two guards, I felt nervous…excited…and hesitant. I didn’t know if I was allowed to turn around to look at Joanne. I fixed my eyes forward and concentrated on each step. For me, I was entering a City of God, the home of the leader of the Catholic faith, hallowed ground. Raised Catholic, I still have a strong reverence for The Church’s traditions and majesty. I find a certain comfort in it. And to enter its domain of spiritual and administrative power was staggering.
We explored the Teutonic Cemetery, a lush and evocative space of contemplation filled with voluminous trees, whimsical shrubs and expressive memorials. Layers upon layers of history rest here: from its Roman Empire days as Nero’s circus and a place of Christian martyrdom to its stint as a hospice, church and burial place for German-speaking pilgrims under Charlemagne; and from the founding of a German confraternity to the establishment of a Teutonic college for priests. The adjacent chapel holds the remains of Swiss Guardsmen who gave their lives during the sack of Rome in the 1500s. The pope formerly known as Benedict XVI used to serve weekly mass here (before he became the leader of the Catholic faith).
A back-way staircase lead us to the atrium of St. Peter’s Basilica. Seeing the same Swiss Guards who let us enter—but from the opposite vantage point of what most people see—reminded me that this was no ordinary tour. And as we stepped into the basilica, I felt small, humbled, and awestruck. It was different than any of the other numerous times I’d been here as a tour guide, tourist, and even as a Christian. I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what I was feeling at the time, but somehow it felt…more personal, more special.
Only a handful of people were still left inside. Closing hours would soon be upon us, but wherever we went inside the church, Joanne had only to ask permission of the officials and we could enter without problem. As a resident of Vatican City and one of only about 15 other women who live in the smallest country in the world, they all knew her. We ambled down the length of the largest church in Christendom and talked about Joanne’s decision to convert to Catholicism and my own Catholic upbringing. We glimpsed her favorite chapel and admired details I had never noticed on Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s epic, bronze baldacchino—the canopy above the Papal Altar, which itself sits above the supposed tomb of Saint Peter. A simple, small replica of a rosary drapes the pedestal of one of the columns. It’s a hint of faith that lends humanity to this Baroque masterpiece. Seeing it suddenly made me feel more intimately connected to this church and to my own faith.
Back outside, we strolled the grounds and discussed the practicalities of living here. Just meters from where the current pope lives is a gas station (rather than in the Papal Apartments, Papa Francesco—as the Italians call him— lives in the dorms with his fellow priests). Across the way is a kind of mini PX department store. Further on is the church where Joanne and Dominic were married (there are several churches and chapels within the walls of Vatican City), and her running route is nearby. In a massive courtyard parking lot is the Vatican Fire Station. And down the street are the Vatican Post Office and a grocery store where you can get pontifical bovine dairy products, fresh from the farm at the Pope’s Castel Gandolofo (there’s a “holy cow” joke in there somewhere).
We peeked into the Giardini Vaticani. It seemed as though we were the only people here…at these gardens, on these grounds, in this entire 100-acre city-state. The stillness of the verdant landscape enveloped my senses. The setting sun still felt warm on my skin. I felt the breeze brush my cheek as the songs of birds danced through the air, and I whispered aloud, “We’re in God’s garden.”
Moving on to the Swiss Guard barracks, we got to see the impressive arsenal. As you enter, there’s a humble and tiny museum-like space with the time-worn remnants of an antique Pontifical Swiss Guard banner, an older and a current version of the guard’s uniform, and the ceremonial armor. The middle of the next room was immaculately organized with weapons of all sorts: the traditional halberds, rifles with bayonets, swords, and what looked like semi-automatic weapons. Three different uniforms were displayed along one wall. The personal helmets and breast-plate armor of the current guardsmen regally lined the other walls. The Swiss Guard recently celebrated their 500th anniversary, having served as the protectors of the popes since 1506. Standing in this room and looking at this perfectly arranged arsenal-museum, the history and pride of the Guardia Svizzera Pontificia was practically palpable.
Before Joanne had to leave to meet her husband, who would be off-duty soon, we visited the the Church of Saints Martin and Sebastian of the Swiss—the private oratory chapel for the Swiss Guard. As we approached the entry, Joanne showed me the precise spot where Dominic had proposed to her. Even at this twilight hour, I could see her face was aglow as she mentally relived the moment.
From outside the oratory, I could hear singing. Angelic tones in a language I couldn’t distinguish greeted us as we entered. Joanne explained that these were Polish nuns who sometimes came here to sing and pray. We crossed ourselves with holy water and knelt across the aisle from the nuns. As I closed my eyes and bowed my head to pray, the sound of their voices resonated in my head and in my chest. It was as though I could feel their prayers. I prayed for my loved ones and for the comfort of people in need. And then I prayed the simplest and most honest prayer I know: Thank you, God. Thank you. Thank you. My eyes began to shed streams of tears, and I felt Joanne put her arm across my shoulders, comforting me like my own guardian angel.
So often when I travel, I feel like the universe conspires in my favor. Perhaps I’m inclined to be more open to adventure and opportunities that come my way, or maybe, because I seek those moments, I recognize them more readily. Or perhaps there truly is a divine hand at work that guides me towards people and circumstances that stretch and shape me for the better. Whatever the reason, in that chapel and in that moment, I knew precisely how fortunate I was, and I was grateful.
We finished the Vatican visit at the Porta Sant’Anna. It all still felt surreal, exploring what Joanne affectionately calls “my backyard.” It was more than I could have imagined, and it left me wanting to see and learn even more. Joanne, although not a licensed guide, shared worthwhile historical and cultural information about the the Swiss Guard, the Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica. But she also made me feel comfortable about asking questions about her own experiences and insight into living within the walls of the Vatican, her spiritual development, and the nitty gritty of life as the wife of a Swiss Guard. No subject was really taboo. I think she recognized my honest curiosity, my respect for the Catholic faith, and my eagerness to know her as a person. And I recognized what an amazing gift I was being given to have access to a world beyond what most people ever see.
We hugged each other goodbye, promising to stay in close touch. She headed off to make dinner for Dominic, and I crossed the border back into Rome.