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Dr: Pope Healed Quickly

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Pope John Paul II apparently surprised his doctors with a quick recovery from his breathing problems.

The emergency room doctor who treated the pontiff's breathing crisis said in comments published Wednesday that he made a swifter-than-expected recovery and is generally in good health.

"The recovery time was more rapid than we initially predicted," and the pope was discharged a day ahead of initial estimates for his release, Dr. Rodolfo Proietti told Avvenire, the daily newspaper of the Italian Bishops Conference.

The interview was the first public remarks by a member of the pope's medical team about the hospitalization.

In separate developments, the Vatican announced a ceremony that would traditionally be presided over by the pope for Feb. 24, an indication that John Paul was getting well enough to resume some of his traditional duties, and a leading cardinal said the pope can continue at the helm of the Church even if his speech problems worsen to the point of muteness.

John Paul was rushed, in the throes of what Vatican officials have described as a "breathing crisis," in an ambulance from the Vatican late at night on Feb. 1 to Gemelli Polyclinic. He was discharged on Feb. 10.

The pontiff, who turns 85 in May, has long suffered from Parkinson's disease, and the recent health crisis provoked open talk among top Vatican officials about whether he should resign.

With only a few, terse medical bulletins issued by the Vatican, and none by Gemelli doctors, some observers have speculated on whether the pontiff was suffering health problems beyond the officially cited voice box spasms and tracheal inflammation.

But Proietti, who directs the teaching hospital's emergency department, insisted in the interview that there was "absolutely no mystery" about the pope's health.

The throat problems with spasms "fortunately was resolved with relative speed and without the appearance of other complications," Proietti told Avvenire.

"The episode is part of the physical structure of an 85-year-old bearing the signs ... of previous medical problems, but (he) has a very strong fiber," the doctor said.

"We were able to move up his discharge by one day," Proietti said. Asked how the pope is now, the doctor replied: "Certainly in good general conditions."

The Vatican announced that on Feb. 24 in the Apostolic Palace there will be a consistory, a ceremony in which the pontiff traditionally proclaims the latest candidates to be made saints.

The announcement didn't say if the pope would actually read the proclamation, but Vatican sources indicated that the consistory wouldn't have been scheduled unless it was expected that John Paul was well enough to keep the appointment.

Since he was hospitalized, John Paul has only been seen twice in window prayer appearances and once in his popemobile as he returned to his private quarters in the Apostolic Palace.

He has said only a few words in the window appearances, prompting worry that the pope is losing his ability to speak. Even before his recent respiratory problems, Parkinson's disease had made speech difficult.

A leading cardinal at the Vatican stressed that even if the pope loses the ability to speak, he can still stay in command.

"It's one thing to consecrate (the host, at Mass). It's another thing to exercise power of jurisdiction, which doesn't just happen through speech," Italian Cardinal Francesco Pompedda, said in an interview with Famiglia Cristiana, an Italian Catholic magazine.

"We're talking about an act of the will, and that can be expressed in various ways, in writing or by gestures," said Pompedda, one of the Vatican's top legal affairs experts.

"A bishop who has lost the power of speech, doesn't say Mass, he doesn't ordain priests, but he doesn't cease to govern a diocese," said Pompedda as way of example.

Last week, when the pope was back from the hospital but still frail, sent a message of support to the sick, saying he feels especially close with them and asking for their prayers.

The pope's letter was read at Mass at St. Peter's Basilica for the Church's World Day of the Sick. Before falling ill with the flu and breathing problems last week, the pontiff had planned to attend.

The 84-year-old pope sent out greetings especially to the ailing, "with whom I feel particularly close," said the message, which was read by Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the pope's vicar for Rome. The congregation broke into applause afterward.

"Your suffering is never useless, dear sick ones," the pope's message said. Pain is precious, he said, because it has a mysterious link to Christ's trial on the cross.

Also, the pope's latest book hits shelves next week in Italy.

The publisher says "Memory and Identity: Conversations Between Millenniums" includes his account of surviving the 1981 assassination attempt against him in St. Peter's Square.

John Paul's fifth book is basically a transcript of conversations he had in Polish with two close friends in 1993 at his summer residence near Rome.

The question-and-answer format looks at Europe in the last century and seeks to identify the "roots of evil."

Neither the publisher nor the Vatican will offer much more detail on the book. The publisher is expected to release an English version in the U.S. soon.

By Frances D'Emilio