ROME, March 13 -- To cries of "Long live the pope!" John Paul II left the hospital and returned to the Vatican on Sunday, 2 1/2 weeks after undergoing throat surgery to ease his breathing.
Vatican officials said the 84-year-old pope would continue his convalescence at his residence after his second hospitalization this year. But in a sign of his fragility, it was unclear whether he would participate in the Holy Week celebrations leading up to Easter, traditionally an active period for the pontiff.
Pope John Paul II leaves Gemelli Polyclinic hospital for his residence after surgery to aid his breathing. He appeared to be coughing as the trip began.
(Andrew Medichini -- AP)
As dusk descended on Rome, John Paul left the Gemelli Polyclinic hospital in a gray Mercedes van with the interior lights on so he could be seen by cheering crowds along the route to the Vatican's Apostolic Palace.
At the start of the 25-minute drive, the pope appeared to have a coughing fit. He raised his hand to his open mouth as his chest heaved several times. But he soon recovered and began making the sign of the cross to pedestrians as the van drove off.
"He is stubborn and determined," said Maralga Penazzo, 69, a visitor to Rome from the Italian province of Catania, after the six-vehicle motorcade passed by. "He will go on as long as he can, no matter what the doctors say."
Earlier in the day, John Paul gave a short, live address to the Roman Catholic faithful for the first time since Feb. 24, when he underwent a tracheostomy to insert a breathing tube in his windpipe after a bout of flu constricted his breathing.
"Dear brothers and sisters, thank you for your visit," he said in Italian to well-wishers who had gathered beneath his 10th-floor hospital window. He then switched to Polish and welcomed a group of pilgrims from his birthplace, the town of Wadowice in southern Poland.
Though the pope's voice was raspy and he labored to catch his breath between sentences, the words were clear. "Greetings in Christ. To everyone, have a good Sunday and a good week," he concluded in Italian.
Vatican officials have repeatedly said the pope is recuperating but have released few details on his condition, leaving the Italian news media to scrutinize even the smallest signs of progress or decline. The pope had appeared at his window to bless the faithful on three previous Sundays but had been mute on those occasions. Last Friday, Vatican TV released a videotape of him saying a few words.
On the other hand, the pope has been unable to deliver his weekly Angelus blessing, which was given on his behalf at St. Peter's Square on Sunday by Archbishop Leonardo Sandri of Argentina. John Paul was shown watching from the hospital on a large-screen television as Sandri conveyed the pope's gratitude to journalists for their coverage, "thanks to which the faithful in every part of the world can feel closer to me and accompany me with affection and prayer."
For the first time in his 26-year papacy, John Paul also has designated senior cardinals to preside at all major ceremonies from Palm Sunday on March 20 through Easter a week later. Vatican officials have said the pope will decide later on the extent to which he will participate in the Holy Week services.
This was the pope's second hospital stay in six weeks. He was treated for the flu and throat inflammation from Feb. 1 to Feb. 10, then was rushed back to the Catholic-run Gemelli Polyclinic hospital with a relapse Feb. 24. He also suffers from knee and hip ailments and the symptoms of Parkinson's disease, including trembling hands.
When he left the hospital after his first stay last month, he traveled in a vehicle popularly known as the popemobile, which has a high roof and large windows to provide maximum visibility of the pontiff.
This time, however, he sat in a wheelchair in the front passenger side of a van with normal windows, one of which was open slightly. A television camera inside the vehicle showed the back of the pope's head and gave his view of the route, which was shown live on state television.
Special correspondent Sarah Delaney contributed to this report.