Vatican Expects Pope For Holy Week

Pope John Paul II probably will return to the Vatican by Palm Sunday, the start of Holy Week leading to Easter, giving him up to 13 more days in the hospital to fully recover from throat surgery and to regain use of his voice, the Vatican said Monday.

A new medical bulletin said the 84-year-old pontiff's condition continues to improve, but it gave no date for his discharge from the hospital, where he was rushed Feb. 24 with his second breathing crisis in a month.

However, papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls told reporters John Paul will be back by Palm Sunday, which falls on March 20, although how he will participate in the Easter rites must still be decided.

Holy Week ceremonies include several Masses, an outdoor Way of the Cross procession at the Colosseum and a major address on Easter Sunday.

The spokesman said the pope has suffered no complications since surgery at Rome's Gemelli Polyclinic hospital to insert a tube in his windpipe, but doctors have cautioned John Paul not to use his voice too much to ensure he makes a complete recovery.

"I think the pope will be here for Holy Week, certainly," Navarro-Valls told reporters.

He said doctors would decide when the tube could be removed.

"The general conditions of the Holy Father continue to improve, which allows the pope to spend long periods of the day in an armchair," the Vatican's latest medical bulletin said.

"No complications have arisen because of the tracheotomy surgery. Continual improvement can also be seen in speaking, thanks to the daily rehabilitation," it said.

But the statement added that "doctors have prescribed a prudent limitation in the pope's use of his voice" to help his larynx, or voice box, recover.

The Vatican said it would issue its next health update Thursday.

Roman Catholics worldwide had been eagerly awaiting word on whether the pope was making a strong enough recovery to participate in the run-up to Easter, the most solemn date on the Christian calendar.

At the hospital, Vatican officials released letters and drawings sent to the pope by Italian third-graders, saying they were among the hundreds of get-well wishes received each day. The drawings showed a smiling pope waving a cane, in his hospital bed and at a window giving his blessing.

A girl identified only as Sonia wrote from the island of Sardinia asking the pope to come and bring his bathing suit "because the sea is beautiful and the thermal baths would be very good for you."

John Paul has Parkinson's disease, a progressive neurological disorder that affects muscle control, making speech and physical movement difficult. The increasing immobility, along with the stooped posture often suffered by Parkinson's patients, makes him highly vulnerable to medical complications, such as breathing problems.

On Sunday, the pope made a silent appearance at a window of his 10th-floor hospital suite to bless the faithful gathered below — the second such appearance since he was rushed by ambulance to the hospital.

"The hand of the father has blessed, caressed and encouraged his children," the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano wrote Monday.

During the recent hospitalizations, the Vatican has released written messages from the pope for various church gatherings and announced the bishops he has named — part of a determined drive to depict John Paul as still in command of his church.