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
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
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
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.,