Pope has emergency operation after breathing crisis
Pope John Paul underwent emergency surgery on Thursday to help him breathe more easily after he was rushed to hospital for the second time in a month with acute respiratory problems.
The Vatican said in a statement that the tracheotomy was a success, but the 30-minute operation raised the prospect that the Roman Catholic Church's great communicator might not be able to speak again for months, if at all.
"The operation, which began at 8:20 p.m. (1920 GMT) and ended at 8:50 p.m. (1950 GMT), ended successfully. The immediate post-operative progress is regular," the Vatican statement said.
The Pope, who gave his consent for the operation, will spend the night in his hospital room, the statement added, implying he did not need to be treated in an intensive care ward.
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's top aide went to see the 84-year-old Pontiff after the operation and told reporters he had been reassured about the Pope's condition.
"When I came into the Gemelli I was very worried but now I am leaving very reassured," Gianni Letta said, adding the Pope joked with doctors ahead of the surgery and had managed a wave when he came out of the operating theater.
However, the Pope already suffers from Parkinson's disease and medical experts warned that he faced a difficult recovery and would have great difficulty regaining his speech.
"He can possibly survive this, but he would certainly have a very prolonged recovery, be very debilitated and very deconditioned," said Dr. Barbara Paris, Chair of Geriatrics and Vice Chair of Medicine at Maimonides Medical Center in New York.
"With a tracheotomy you can only speak with very great difficulty, if at all," she told Reuters by telephone from the United States.
The Pope was rushed to hospital earlier on Thursday for the second time this month and the fresh deterioration in his health will revive fears that one of the longest and most historic papacies might be drawing to a close.
It will also fuel debate over whether John Paul, trapped in a broken body that brings nothing but pain, should continue to head the Church.
Earlier in the day, senior churchmen urged the faithful to pray for the man who has led the world's 1.1 billion Roman Catholics for 26 years and has made personal suffering a byword of the last years of his papacy.
"I call on all the diocese of Rome to gather in prayer for our most loved bishop and the father of the faith," said Camillo Ruini, the Cardinal of Rome.
It was the 10th time that John Paul had to be treated at the Gemelli since becoming Pope on October 16, 1978.
"Poor man -- I think he has reached the end. He can't take it any more," said Maria Luisa, who was visiting a friend at the large hospital on the northwestern outskirts of Rome.
The ailing Pope had been expected to attend a ceremony on Thursday morning to approve sainthood decrees, which took place in the frescoed Clementia Hall meters (yards) from his private study in the Apostolic Palace.
Cardinals and bishops were gathered in the hall awaiting his arrival, but aides decided at the last moment that the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, would preside instead, leaving the Pope to watch the event on television.
The Pope penned several words for Sodano to read, telling the cardinals he was watching from his adjacent apartment.
His health then took yet another turn for the worse and doctors ordered his immediate transfer by ambulance to the Gemelli hospital, some 4 km (2.5 miles) from the Vatican.