Sun Mar 13, 2005 02:24 PM GMT
By Philip Pullella
ROME (Reuters) - Pope John Paul has spoken directly to the Roman Catholic faithful for the first time since throat surgery last month and the Vatican said he would leave the hospital in the evening.
The 84-year-old Pontiff appeared briefly at his window at Rome's Gemelli hospital and spoke a few phrases in Italian and Polish to pilgrims in the courtyard below.
"Dear brothers and sisters, welcome, thank you for your visit," he said in clear Italian on Sunday.
In Polish he then greeted pilgrims from his birthplace in the southern town of Wadowice, bringing tears to their eyes.
He concluded his brief appearance by saying in Italian: "Greetings in Christ. A good Sunday and good rest of the week to everyone."
The Pope has been in hospital since February 24 when he underwent a tracheotomy, an operation to open an airway and relieve severe breathing problems.
Minutes after he appeared at the hospital window, the Vatican issued a surprise announcement saying the Pope would leave hospital on Sunday evening and continue his convalescence at the Vatican. A hospital spokesman said the Pontiff would leave at around 6 p.m. (1700 GMT)
There had been much speculation about the operation's effect on his voice but on Sunday it was clearly recognisable.
He is undergoing breathing and speech rehabilitation therapy and is believed to still have a tube in his throat to help air get to his lungs.
On Sunday, the top of the Pope's white cassock was unbuttoned, apparently to avoid pressure on the tube.
Earlier, he watched on television as for the third straight week as an aide presided at his Sunday Angelus blessing in St Peter's Square and read a message for him.
EASTER DUTIES DELEGATED
For the first time in his 26-year-old papacy he has delegated senior cardinals to preside at nearly all of the Holy Week services which lead up to Easter Sunday, March 27.
The next medical bulletin on his health had been expected for Monday but it was still not clear if it would still be issued after his return to the Vatican.
Poles and other pilgrims at the hospital broke into tears when the Pope spoke his first public words since going to hospital.
"I put myself in debt to come here and see him," said Michell Garza, 25, a university student who flew to Italy from Texas specifically to see the Pope.
"The Pope is showing us how important it is to live until you die," she said.
"Even though he is very old, his message to young people and his message in defence of life, his stand against abortion and euthanasia, is really powerful."
In his Angelus message read on his behalf by Archbishop Leonardo Sandri in St Peter's Square, the Pope thanked the media for the attention they had paid to his hospitalisation.
"Thanks to this, the faithful throughout the world can feel me closer to them and accompany me with their affection and their prayer," he said.
He said the media was a good means of spreading the word of God and and "feeding one's own spirit".
He added: "I am grateful to those who dedicate themselves to these new forms of evangelisation which make the most of the mass media."