By JOHN THAVIS, CNS | Published February 10, 2005
The Vatican said Pope John Paul II continued to improve, but his doctors were keeping him in the hospital for a few more days as a precaution.
The 84-year-old pontiff felt well enough to deliver a brief blessing to the faithful six days after he was hospitalized for flu-related breathing problems.
But his weak health prompted renewed speculation over papal resignation. Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Vatican secretary of state, told reporters Feb. 7 that eventual resignation was a decision that must be left to the “conscience” of the pope.
The cardinal added that he hoped the pope would continue in the papacy for several more years.
Although the pope’s respiratory condition continued to improve and his fever was gone, Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said Feb. 7 that the pope would remain in Rome’s Gemelli Hospital for “prudential reasons” at least until Feb. 10.
Navarro-Valls said the pope was eating regularly, sitting in a chair several hours a day and reading some of the hundreds of get-well messages and letters that have poured into the hospital.
The pope also was glancing at the daily newspapers. According to the papal spokesman, the pope said he was doing so “in order to follow the progress of my illness.”
The pope was rushed to the hospital Feb. 1 after he had trouble breathing. Doctors at Gemelli diagnosed an “acute laryngeal tracheitis,” or swelling in the throat, with “laryngeal spasms,” which cut off the air supply. The Vatican said the spasms had not recurred.
On Feb. 8, a group of Polish mountaineers serenaded the pope below his 10th-floor hospital room. They wore traditional costumes from the Tatra mountain region, where the pope used to hike as a young man, and carried a statue of Our Lady of Fatima. The pope did not come to the window.
Two days earlier, the pope pronounced a Sunday blessing in a weak voice from his hospital window and waved to well-wishers. The pope looked alert throughout the 10-minute appearance, and several times he raised his hand in greeting. That was enough to buoy many of the people who gathered on the hospital grounds and others who watched on giant video screens in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican.
When the pope pronounced the blessing, however, it was in a feeble and hoarse voice that could barely be heard.
Pilgrims who gathered to watch at the Vatican expressed hope and some concern.
“Of course we’re worried, but we’re also very hopeful. He seems to be recovering well,” said Trena Pilegaard, a 21-year-old student at the Rome program of Virginia’s Christendom College.
“Every rosary we say, we remember the pope,” she added.
The pope had hoped to be able to pronounce his weekly Angelus talk, but doctors ruled that out. Instead, Archbishop Leonardo Sandri, an assistant secretary of state, read the talk for him; the pope shifted occasionally in his chair and at times took a deep breath.
The papal text expressed thanks to the doctors and hospital staff and to the thousands who have sent their get-well wishes from all over the globe. He said he was praying constantly for their intentions and for the needs of the world during his hospital stay.
“In this way, even here in the hospital, among the other sick people to whom my affectionate thoughts go out, I continue to serve the church and all of humanity,” the text said.
Navarro-Valls said an “enormous package” of mail, including many letters from the sick, had arrived at the hospital for the pope. One woman enclosed a photo of her cancer-stricken boy.
“These are very touching letters from people who are opening their hearts to the Holy Father and confiding their sufferings. The pope is keeping all of them in his prayers,” Navarro-Valls said.
After the pope made the sign of the cross at the end of the blessing, he lingered a few moments at the window. Cries of “Long live the pope!” went up.
Sister Maria Yasiurka, a Presentation sister from the pope’s native Archdiocese of Krakow, stood looking up at the pope’s window.
“We pray for him every day in our convent,” she said. “We also pray that he returns soon to the Vatican. We want to see him in St. Peter’s Square every Sunday for the Angelus.”
Among the well-wishers over the weekend were a group of nearly 100 bishops from the Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican and Eastern Orthodox churches, who gathered for an ecumenical service in the hospital chapel Feb. 5. They offered prayers for the pope’s recovery, and afterward a delegation of four church leaders met with the pope in his room and presented him with a letter.
“We were able to understand him when he spoke,” said a smiling Bishop Vincenzo Paglia of Terni, Italy.
“He is better and happy, and we hope he returns to the Vatican soon,” Bishop Paglia said at a press conference in the hospital lobby.
The other prelates who saw the pontiff were Bishop Anthony Lobo of Islamabad-Rawalpindi, Metropolitan Serafim Joanta of the Romanian Orthodox Church of Germany and Central Europe, and Anglican Bishop Richard Clarke of Meath and Kildare, Ireland.
The pope’s get-well messages included a letter from inmates of two prisons in Rome that the pope has visited in past years. The prisoners wished the pope a speedy recovery because, they said, “a pope like you shouldn’t suffer.”
The Vatican did not say how long the pope was expected to stay in the hospital, but it announced that he would not be presiding over his weekly general audience Feb. 9, which was to include an Ash Wednesday prayer service. Taking the pope’s place at the prayer service will be U.S. Cardinal J. Francis Stafford, the Vatican said.
The pope has a neurological disorder believed to be Parkinson’s disease, which has sometimes made breathing difficult during his public appearances. Medical experts said Parkinson’s disease typically diminishes lung capacity as it progresses.
Navarro-Valls said Feb. 7 the next scheduled medical briefing on the pope would be Feb. 10.
Contributing to this story was Sofia Celeste.