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Clad in the colorful renaissance uniforms designed by Michaelangelo, the Swiss Guards offer great photo opportunities for tourists visiting the Vatican. But their decorative function is secondary only to their main purpose, which is to protect the person of the Pope. Things have changed a lot since Julius II contracted Swiss mercenaries as bodyguards at the end of the fourteenth century. Guns have replaced daggers, swords, and halberds, and the pope is more of a spiritual than temporal leader. Today, the Pope travels a great deal to places often far away from Rome, like Manila. On long trips, the popes does not take his Swiss Guards, leaving the problem of security to God and the host country.

Papal security is complicated because the pope, technically, has no bodyguards. A traveling pope is always surrounded by cardinals and bishops who are often too old to protect him. In principle, modern popes refuse armed guards because these negate the pope's character as bringer of peace. The (in)famous Msgr. Marckinkus, who used to brusquely clear the pope's way through the crowds, was not guarding the pope from attack but merely restraining the overzealous who nudge the pope around too much.

Reading about the security arrangements for the coming papal visit makes me smile because newspapers in November 1970 carried similar stories. History records the attempt on the life of Paul VI at the Manila International Airport. The would be assassin was a thirty five year old Bolivian painter named Benjamin Mendoza, and the hero of the story, at least for a few hours until the truth surfaced, was Ferdinand E. Marcos.

Things happened very fast on the morning of Novermber 27, 1970. Because that was the first papal visit to the Philippines, the people cheered wildly as Paul VI disembarked from the plane and started to shake hands with VIPs who lined the red carpet on the way to the dais where he was to read a short message. Mendoza, in a black clerical outfit, suddenly lunged at the pope with a 10-inch kris, but was subdued by security men. The pope proceeded to the podium as if nothing happened.

In a statement issued shortly after the incident, Mrs. Marcos said her husband delivered the life-saving karate chop with his left hand (FM was left-handed) and pushed the pope away from the attacker with his right. The pope was shoved towards Mrs. Marcos who saw the assassin's kris fall. She even bent to pick up a crucifix that fell. Other people corroborated this story and even added that aside from the famous karate chop, Marcos even tried to give a flying kick to Mendoza.

When the official Vatican statement on the incident made no mention of the Marcos karate chop and suggested that a Korean Cardinal parried the blow, everyone was confused. Marcos was visibly irritated when asked to comment. He described the report as "ridiculous" and snapped, "Why don't they ask the persons who know? Why don't they ask the man [Mendoza] himself?"

During a short press conference at the NBI headquarters on November 28, 1970, Mendoza said, "I feel disappointed for failing to kill the pope and would do it again if given another chance." Immediately, the NBI added the charge of grave threat to his list of offenses. But Mendoza scored some points for leniency by establishing once and for all who actually gave the disputed karate chop:

  • Although I thought then it was President Marcos who parried my hands, I was not very sure about it. But when I saw the pictures you [NBI Director Bugarin] showed me, I am convinced it was really he [ FM] who prevented my killing the pope. Sorry, sorry about the disappointment.

Photographs of the event showed Marcos too far away from the pope to have managed either a karate chop or even a flying kick. On December 1, 1970, Anthony Dennis Galvin, Bishop of Sarawak, who was literally an arm's length away from the pope when the incident occurred, said he could "not remember seeing President Marcos give the Bolivian painter a karate chop and kick." He issued a statement in Singapore that said in part:

  • It was one of the two papal security guards who played the vital role of saving the Pope, for he stuck out his hand to parry the attacker's lunge and pushed him away -- right into my arms...I stretched out my arms, folded them around the man and pulled him further backwards, while presidential security men grabbed the man's hand and tugged him away.

Who is telling the truth? Between a bishop, a mad painter, and a president who lied about his war medals, we do not need a Sherlock Holmes to deduce who really executed the famous karate chop.

Source: Ambeth R. Ocampo, "Mabini's Ghost," Anvil Publishing, Inc., 1995.

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