Weak Pope appears, says still serving church
ROME - Speaking with difficulty, Pope John Paul appeared on Sunday at his hospital window for the first time since taking ill and said through an aide that he was still "serving the Church and all humanity."
At the end of a message read by an aide, the Pope delivered his blessing in a voice that was faint, hoarse and cracking. He then made the sign of the cross.
At the start he was wheeled to the window while seated and wore his traditional white cassock and skullcap. His face looked red and his eyes distant as he waved slowly to the faithful.
The Pope sat silently while the aide, Archbishop Leonardo Sandri, read his Sunday message for him.
The message thanked people the world over for their prayers for his recovery and their get-well messages, which he said had moved him in a "particularly intense way."
Then, always speaking through Sandri, the Pope made clear that he was still in charge of worldwide Catholicism.
"This way, even from here in the hospital, among other sick people to whom go my sincere best wishes, I continue to serve the Church and all humanity," the Pope's message said.
The words appeared to be a response to some reports that the Pope was not able to run the Church because of his various illnesses, including Parkinson's disease.
It was believed to be the first time since his 1978 election that the Pope did not deliver a brief message on Sunday. Even on May 17, 1981, four days after an assassination attempt, he read a radio message from his hospital bed.
Below his drab hospital window on Rome's outskirts, a small group of well-wishers gathered, including a group of students from Spain who chanted in Spanish: "John Paul Two -- the whole world loves you."
The message and blessing were also broadcast live to St. Peter's Square, from where the Pope usually delivers the noon Sunday address from the windows of his apartments.
Most pilgrims and tourists in St. Peter's Square knew the Pope would not be there but they came anyway and watched on large television screens.
"We are here to pray for our families, for our country, and for the Pope because he is the leader of the faith that we hold dear," said Soledad Schedid, a 28-year-old woman from Buenos Aires, Argentina.
"We are here because he is the head of the Church and Catholicism and we want God to make him get better because we all need him," she said.
The Pope's inability to read the message or the prayer are not the only firsts forced on the Pope by his latest hospitalization.
The Vatican has announced that the Pope will not preside at Ash Wednesday services in St. Peter's Basilica at the start of Lent next week. It will be the first time in his 26-year-old papacy that he will miss Ash Wednesday.
American Cardinal James Stafford would preside at the ceremony on the Pope's behalf, the Vatican said. Sunday was the Pope's fifth full day in the hospital where he was rushed after suffering a breathing crisis just before midnight on Tuesday.
The Sunday appearance was his first in a week.
The Pope's latest hospitalization, coupled with the onslaught of Parkinson's disease and arthritis, has served as another reminder that one of history's greatest papacies is getting closer to an end.
But the Vatican newspaper, Osservatore Romano, said the Pope "who led the Church into the Third Millennium will continue to guide her with the strength of his suffering."
The last full medical bulletin on the Pope's condition was issued on Friday and the Vatican has said the next one will be issued on Monday at 6 a.m. EST.