Vatican Reports Pope 'Improving'

Pope John Paul II is "progressively improving" and following the Roman Catholic Church's activities daily, the Vatican said Thursday, suggesting he might be released from the hospital in time for Easter.

Papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said the wound on John Paul's throat after surgery to insert a breathing tube was healing. He said the frail, 84-year-old pontiff wants to go back to the Vatican, "but at the same time, he accepts doctors' advice" not to rush back to the Holy See after suffering his second breathing crisis in a month.

The pope has been receiving several top churchmen "with whom he daily follows the activity of the Holy See and the life of the church," Navarro-Valls told reporters.

He said the Vatican would decide on Saturday what the pope's schedule for Sunday would be, but that it was likely that an archbishop would read out the Angelus prayer and blessing to the faithful just as this past Sunday.

Asked whether the pope might be back at the Vatican in time for Easter celebrations on March 27, Navarro-Valls told The Associated Press: "It's possible." He said the Vatican was going ahead with its regular Easter schedule and that if the pope was released before the holiday, his level of participation would still have to be decided.

"The health of the Holy Father John Paul II continues to improve and show progress," the spokesman said. "As previously stated, the pope is eating regularly and spends several hours each day in an armchair. The surgical wound is healing."

It said the pope's daily therapy to improve his ability to breathe and speak were continuing "with the active collaboration of the Holy Father," and that the next medical update was not expected until Monday.

Navarro-Valls said the pope spends some time in the small chapel adjoining his room.

The Holy See has yet to set even a target date for the pope's discharge from Rome's Gemelli Polyclinic hospital, suggesting doctors are prolonging his stay to enhance his chances of recovering. Some have criticized the Vatican for discharging the pope too early after he suffered an earlier respiratory crisis on Feb. 1.

The Vatican has sought to portray John Paul's condition in a positive light, emphasizing the visitors he has seen and suggesting that an August trip to Cologne, Germany, for World Youth Day is still on.

Cardinal Joachim Meisner of Cologne said Wednesday he still expects to see John Paul in mid-August at the event, which gathers young people from around the world and is among the pope's most beloved spectacles. The Vatican has also encouraged the idea the pope will make the journey if his health permits.

"It's not important that the pope speak with the many, many young people, but it's his presence that's important," Meisner said following a visit with the pope at the hospital. "The person of the Holy Father speaks a lot."

World Youth Day is the only foreign stop on this year's schedule for the pope, who has made 104 international trips in his 26-year papacy but has drastically cut back on travel over the past few years.

The pope's ability to endure the rigors of a trip depend on his latest recovery, which is complicated by Parkinson's disease, which causes gradual loss of muscle control. The pope also suffers from crippling hip and knee ailments.

He was taken by ambulance to Gemelli with breathing spasms on Feb. 1 and was released on Feb. 10, only to be rushed back again on Feb. 24 for a throat operation that left him with a breathing tube and facing extensive speech and respiratory therapy. On Monday, the Vatican said the pope was suffering no complications, was eating regularly and was spending a few hours a day in an armchair.

"Doctors give us encouraging news, but we need to wait," Cardinal Achille Silvestrini was quoted as saying in the Corriere della Sera newspaper.