IMAGE: Pope waves to crowd
Alastair Grant  /  AP
Pope John Paul II waves to well-wishers outside his window at the Gemelli hospital in Rome on Sunday.
updated 3/3/2005 3:01:30 PM ET 2005-03-03T20:01:30

Pope John Paul II may be back at the Vatican by Easter, his spokesman said in a cautious declaration Thursday, stressing that the frail pontiff’s health continues to improve as he leads the Roman Catholic Church from his hospital room.

The Vatican said John Paul is eager to leave the hospital but accepts his doctors’ advice not to rush his discharge.

A week after the 84-year-old pope was taken to the hospital after his second breathing crisis in a month, spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls would offer no firm prediction of when John Paul would return to the Vatican, confirm any of his plans for Easter or say with certainty whether he will participate in noon prayers this Sunday.

“There’s no precise date yet. I wouldn’t want to put forth a likely date because it might change in a positive or negative way,” Navarro-Valls replied when asked about the pope’s eventual release.

In line, however, with Vatican efforts to show John Paul is in command, Navarro-Valls said the pope has been receiving several top churchmen “with whom he daily follows the activity of the Holy See and the life of the church.”

With Vatican officials standing in for the pope, including an archbishop who has become his official voice, a new image of the papacy has been emerging during the hospitalization. Several top officials have said they see no problem with a pope who can’t speak.

Illustrating how the ailing pope is attending to business, the Vatican released a message the pope sent to a Vatican congregation holding its general assembly.

But John Paul’s presence would be important at Holy Week celebrations leading up to Easter on March 27.

Asked whether the pope might be back at the Vatican in time for Easter, Navarro-Valls said: “It’s possible.”

He said the Vatican was going ahead with its regular Easter schedule and that if the pope was released before the holiday, his level of participation would still have to be decided.

Navarro-Valls said the incision made in John Paul’s throat after surgery to insert a breathing tube was healing, although it was not known if there were plans to remove the tube. Reporters have been unable to speak directly with the pope’s doctors, as during previous hospitalizations at the Gemelli Polyclinic, but Navarro-Valls said the medical bulletins were the work of the attending physicians.

He said the Vatican would decide Saturday what the pope’s schedule for Sunday would be, but that it was likely an archbishop would read out the Angelus prayer and blessing to the faithful, and implied the pope might make another appearance at his hospital window.

“The health of the Holy Father John Paul II continues to improve and show progress,” the spokesman said. “As previously stated, the pope is eating regularly and spends several hours each day in an armchair. The surgical wound is healing.”

He said the pope’s daily speech and breathing therapy was continuing “with the active collaboration of the Holy Father,” and that the pope spends some time in the small chapel adjoining his room.

The pope’s overall health and recovery are complicated by Parkinson’s disease, which causes gradual loss of muscle control. He also suffers from crippling hip and knee ailments.

John Paul was taken by ambulance to Gemelli with breathing spasms on Feb. 1 and was released on Feb. 10, only to be rushed back again on Feb. 24 for a throat operation that left him with a breathing tube and facing extensive speech and respiratory therapy. The Vatican said the next health update would come on Monday.

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