Three weeks after being rushed to the hospital with breathing problems, Pope John Paul II is slowly resuming his regular activities while making clear — once again — that he has no intention of stepping down.
Acting with caution, the Vatican said the frail pontiff will not preside at his weekly public audience Wednesday but he will greet and bless the faithful from his apartment window overlooking St. Peter’s Square.
However, the Vatican also said John Paul will hold his first meeting with a foreign dignitary since his illness, an audience Tuesday with the prime minister of Croatia, a Roman Catholic bastion in the Balkans.
John Paul met Monday with a group of visiting Spanish bishops.
For the moment, a Vatican official said, decisions on the 84-year-old pope’s availability will be made on a day-by-day basis.
Whenever John Paul addresses the faithful in various languages during his weekly audience, scores of people are brought up to the stage in the Vatican auditorium to kiss his ring or shake his hand. That would expose him to further illness at a time when hundreds of thousands of Italians have the flu.
As the pope has weakened physically over the past decade, the world has gotten used to seeing him struggling with his speech because of Parkinson’s disease and remaining seated on a wheeled throne because of crippling knee and hip ailments.
John Paul appeared in good form and spoke in a strong, relatively clear voice during his Sunday address at St. Peter’s Square, his second since being released from the hospital on Feb. 10.
From his window at the Vatican, the pontiff read his entire address, stopping briefly to cough and skipping a Latin prayer but continuing to the end with no apparent problems.
It was a marked contrast from recent speeches in which the pontiff has struggled to catch his breath. Aides have finished many of his speeches for him, a practice that will clearly continue.
'Remaining at the service'
His words Sunday carried a particular message — his determination not to step down.
He spoke of the “special task entrusted to (Saint) Peter and his successors,” that of “remaining at the service of the unity of the church.”
“That cannot but sound as an indirect confirmation — as if one was still needed — of his will to continue as pope, despite the growing difficulties,” said the leading Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera.
Because of his ailments, there has long been speculation that John Paul might consider resigning. That debate was fueled during his hospitalization when the Vatican’s No. 2, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, declined to rule out that possibility, saying it was up to the pope’s “conscience.”
John Paul was rushed to a Rome hospital Feb. 1 with respiratory problems that developed while he was suffering from the flu. The pontiff returned to the Vatican on Feb. 10 to convalesce, and the emergency room doctor who treated his breathing crisis said he had not developed any other complications.
The pope spent last week out of the public eye, in a spiritual retreat at the Vatican for his traditional Lenten period of reflection.
The Vatican has not said whether John Paul will stick to his usual heavy schedule of appearances during Holy Week, including Palm Sunday, Good Friday and Easter services, which come in late March.