"I am happy to address my cordial greetings to you all, dear friends, former Swiss Guards and participants in this special march," said the Pope today when welcoming them from the window of his study.
The Guards crossed through the city of Rome, as they did 500 years ago, and were welcomed by the local authorities in Piazza del Popolo. They then proceeded to St. Peter's Square, where they received the Holy Father's blessing.
The march followed the Via Francigena, in the footsteps of the first Swiss Guards called by Pope Julius II.
"Dear friends," Benedict XVI said, "I congratulate you on this beautiful initiative that recalls the courage of the 150 Swiss citizens that, with generosity, defended unto death the person of the Sovereign Pontiff, writing with their sacrifice an important page of the history of Rome."
He was referring to the Swiss Guards who died defending Pope Clement VII during the sack of Rome on May 6, 1527, when attacked by the troops of Emperor Charles V. The Pope was saved when he sought refuge in the Castel Sant'Angelo, near the Vatican.
"Looking over these five centuries," Benedict XVI said, "we thank God for the good carried out by your predecessors and for the precious contribution that the papal Swiss Guard continues to offer the Holy See still today."
The former Guards began their march April 7 from Bellinzona, in the Swiss canton of Ticino, and marched about 445 miles (720 kilometers) along the old pilgrim route known as the Via Francigena.
A concert was planned for tonight in the Church of St. Ignatius, performed by the choirs of the School of Olten and the Swiss Army Concert Band.
On Friday, at 3:30 p.m. in the Conciliazione Auditorium a meeting will take place which will include all the members of the Swiss Guard and their families and friends.
At 7 p.m. the choir and orchestra of the Collegium Musicum of Lucerne, the choir of Fribourg Cathedral and the Vokalensemble of the Swiss canton of Schwyz will perform the "Carmen Saeculare" by Benedictine Father Theo Flury.
Saturday, the main day of the fifth-centenary celebrations, will begin with a commemorative Mass in St. Peter's Basilica. A wreath of flowers will then be laid in the Square of Roman Protomartyrs inside the Vatican, remembering those Guards who fell during the 1527 sack of Rome.
At 4:30 p.m. the annual swearing-in ceremony for new recruits will take place. For the first time it will be held in St. Peter's Square, rather than in the San Damaso courtyard. At 11 p.m. there will be a fireworks display over Castel Sant'Angelo.
On Sunday, after the Pope leads the faithful in praying the Regina Caeli, the Swiss Army Concert Band will offer a concert in St. Peter's Square.