updated 3/11/2005 11:30:15 AM ET 2005-03-11T16:30:15

The Vatican released a video Friday with Pope John Paul II speaking, the first time the pontiff has been heard publicly since a throat operation last month to help him breathe.

The video was taken of a meeting Friday with Tanzanian prelates in the pope’s hospital room. He says a few words in a husky voice, including “va bene,” Italian for “OK.”

The 84-year-old pontiff is shown seated during a Mass with the prelates. His voice reciting a prayer is barely audible.

The two — Cardinal Polycarp Pengo and Bishop Severine Niwemugizi — are shown telling him in English that Tanzanians are praying for him and love him. He responded with the two Italian words.

The meeting was an indication that the frail pontiff was stepping up his activities before returning to the Vatican.

The pope’s doctors have extended his hospital stay “a few more days” but the Vatican said he still plans to return in time for the start of Holy Week that begins on Palm Sunday on March 20.

The Vatican also released a message the pope gave the bishops, urging them to resist programs linking economic aid to the promotion of sterilization and contraception and reaffirming the view that sexual abstinence outside marriage is the surest way to limit the spread of AIDS.

“While I regret that I cannot receive you in the Vatican at this time, nevertheless I gladly welcome you,” the message said. “I greet you all from the Gemelli hospital, where I offer my prayers and my suffering for you.”

Francesco Storace, the president of Rome’s Lazio region, visited the hospital Friday and said he was assured by John Paul’s aides that the convalescence was going well. He said he was told “the pope is doing well and will get out soon.”

Pengo and Niwemugizi attended a Mass with John Paul in his 10th floor suite at the Gemelli Polyclinic hospital, Vatican officials said. They came to Rome as part of periodic visits all bishops make.

'Progressing regularly'
Papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said Thursday that extending the hospital stay was not a sign of problems, noting that the Vatican’s latest medical bulletin said the pope’s convalescence was “progressing regularly.” He told reporters there was nothing in particular that was being done for John Paul at the hospital that could not be handled at the Vatican.

No date had been given for the frail pope’s return, but the announcement appeared to suggest there may have been a plan to release him earlier that was dropped to give him more time to regain his strength.

The hospital stay, Navarro-Valls said, “involves completing the phase of convalescence, not a phase of therapy.”

The next medical bulletin is scheduled for Monday.

Navarro-Valls said John Paul would make another appearance at a hospital window this Sunday, but that it was not known whether his voice would be strong enough to greet the faithful.

Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday and culminates with Easter a week later. The Vatican has said the pope plans to give his traditional blessings on Easter Sunday, his only commitment so far. The pope has delegated various cardinals to preside over the events, but has not named anyone for the Way of the Cross procession at the Colosseum on Good Friday evening, an indication he may want to appear himself.

John Paul has been recovering at Gemelli from surgery to insert a tube into his windpipe to help him breathe. He has been undergoing breathing and speech therapy, the Vatican says.

“For now the tube stays in, then the doctors will decide,” Navarro-Valls said. “The Holy Father keeps receiving his aides at the hospital, with whom he follows the activity of the Holy See and the life of the church.”

The faithful have been gathering by the hundreds each day beneath his hospital suite.

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