Pope well enough to bless crowd from studio Sunday

Monday, February 14, 2005

VATICAN CITY -- Returning to the world's most storied pulpit for the first time since his hospitalization, Pope John Paul II addressed a sea of worshippers Sunday from his studio in St. Peter's Square and gave with his presence what no cardinal's words could deliver: a strong assurance that he's on the rebound.

An aide delivered most of the message, but at the very end the pope's voice rang out clearly: "Happy Sunday to everybody. Thank you."

The 84-year-old pontiff looked alert as he waved to the crowd with a trembling hand. He gave a brief greeting before Argentine Archbishop Leonardo Sandri carried on with the address. Thousands of pilgrims applauded and some shouted "Viva il Papa!" -- or "Long live the pope!"

"We meet again in this place to praise the Lord," the pope said in his message, read by the bishop.

The pope was rushed to a Rome hospital Feb. 1 with breathing difficulties after coming down with the flu. He returned to the Vatican Thursday.

In a subtle rebuttal to rumors the pope might step down because of his frail health, the bishop read on the pope's behalf a message saying: "I always need your help before the Lord, for carrying out my mission that Jesus entrusted to me."

The Pope's Sunday appearance at St. Peter's is a cherished weekly tradition for Roman Catholics, and its resumption was certain to come as a big relief for believers around the world.

Thousands of people packed the square to catch a glimpse of the pontiff.

"I thought he was amazing, given his age," said Catherine Kelly of Newcastle, England.

Although John Paul's voice was weak, "it was nice to hear him," said her brother, Terry Elsdon.

His message included an appeal for Iraqi hostages, including kidnapped Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena.

John Paul's return to the Vatican coincided with his weeklong spiritual retreat beginning Sunday, scheduled before he fell ill. During that period all audiences will be suspended, including the pontiff's customary Wednesday public audience.

Speculation has mounted that John Paul, who suffers from Parkinson's disease and crippling hip and knee ailments, might resign. The debate was fueled last week when the Vatican's No. 2, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, declined to rule out that possibility, saying it was up to the pope's "conscience."

In an apparent effort to end such talk, a top cardinal said in remarks carried Saturday in a newspaper that the pontiff was fully able to make decisions and that he probably would travel to Cologne, Germany, in August for World Youth Day.

"I am in fact sure that ... he will continue to have the real capacity to work. ... That is expressed not only in his speeches but in the decisions that are taken," Cardinal Camillo Ruini told La Repubblica.

On Friday, the pope's first full day out of the hospital, the Vatican's official newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, also sought to quash resignation rumors with the headline: "The rudder is still in his hands."

No pope has resigned for centuries, and John Paul repeatedly has said he intends to carry out his mission until the end of his life.

The day after his release from the hospital, the pope sent a message of support to the ailing on the church's World Day of the Sick but did not attend the Mass at St. Peter's Basilica.

In the message read out by Cardinal Ruini, the pope's vicar for Rome, John Paul said he felt "particularly close" to the sick.

"Your suffering is never useless, dear sick ones," the pope's message said.

Pain is precious, he said, because it has a mysterious link to Christ's trial on the cross.

Since the pope's appearance a week ago from his hospital room window, some have worried about his future at the head of the church because his very brief words were almost entirely inaudible. The clearer delivery from his studio at St. Peter's was likely to help allay those fears.

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