Frail Pope to carry on after sermon from hospital room

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Millions of Catholics around the world gave thanks yesterday when the Pope made his first public appearance since being admitted to hospital five days ago.

Millions of Catholics around the world gave thanks yesterday when the Pope made his first public appearance since being admitted to hospital five days ago.

The 84-year-old Pontiff, looking weak and barely, if at all, able to talk, appeared for his traditional weekly Angelus address at the window of his 10th-floor suite at the Gemelli Hospital in Rome where he was taken by ambulance from the Vatican last Tuesday with severe breathing difficulties caused by flu and Parkinson's disease.

John Paul evidently tried to put to rest speculation that his pontificate is rapidly drawing to an end, saying through an aide, Archbishop Leonardo Sandri, that he was still "serving the Church and all humanity. Even here in hospital, surrounded by other sick people, to whom I send my affectionate thoughts, I continue to serve the Church and the whole of humanity".

At the end of the message read by the prelate, the Pope apparently gave his blessing in a voice that was faint, hoarse and cracking. There was speculation in the Vatican press corps that the blessing had been recorded on Saturday when the Pope was in better form and that what the faithful heard yesterday was a recorded broadcast as the Polish former actor mimicked speech behind a script he was holding. "The Pope gave his blessing in playback," the Associated Press reported.

Whatever the case, the effort by the Pope to get up from his sickbed so he could be wheeled to the window in his traditional white cassock and skullcap to wave slowly to the faithful live on television was a tremendous relief to the world's one billion Roman Catholics. Despite the cold but sunny weather, the Pope remained at the open window for the 10-minute Angelus, making the sign of the cross after the blessing.

As a measure of John Paul's widespread popularity and respect, al-Jazeera television in Qatar - al-Qa'ida's channel of choice for its pronouncements on the war against the West - interrupted its regular flow of news from the troublespots of the Middle East to broadcast live footage of the Christian leader's remarkable fight for recovery.

One of the most spectacular expressions of solidarity the Pope has received from a seemingly unlikely quarter was a 6ft-tall high floral composition sent to the hospital by the Libyan embassy in Rome. Tucked into the massive bouquet of roses, yellow and white to recall the colours of the Vatican coat of arms, was a note believed to have been signed by the Libyan leader, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. A message wishing the Pope a "prompt recovery" arrived at the Holy See on Saturday from the Russian Orthodox Patriarch, Alessio II, in Moscow.

Yesterday is believed to have been the first time since his election to St Peter's throne in 1978 - when his sporty appearance led him to be dubbed "God's Athlete" - that the Pope did not deliver a brief message on Sunday at noon. Even on 17 May 1981, four days after he was wounded severely by the Turkish terrorist gunman Mehmet Ali Agca, John Paul read a radio message from his hospital bed.

Beneath his hospital window on Rome's northern outskirts, students from Toledo chanted in Spanish, "John Paul II, the whole world loves you". Monsignor Francesco Lambiasi, of the youth group Catholic Action, said: "The Pope showing himself today augurs well for the future. That means we can feel reassured. It's a good sign."

Patients in pyjamas watched from a courtyard and crossed themselves when they heard John Paul's voice on speakers.