ROME, March 27 -- The hand of an unseen assistant moved a microphone out of the shadows of the papal palace and into place at an open window. Sitting in front of it, Pope John Paul II tried to broadcast an Easter Sunday blessing to the tens of thousands of pilgrims, worshipers and tourists in St. Peter's Square below. But all he could manage were rasps and grimaces. His hand traced a cross in the air, and tears flowed from the eyes of many in the hushed crowd.
The pope sat for 12 dramatic minutes at the window. It was his longest period in the public eye since he left the hospital two weeks ago after undergoing a tracheostomy to help him breathe. The 20-minute trip from the hospital to the Vatican was televised.
The pope sat at his window in the papal palace for 12 minutes, his longest public appearance since his televised trip home from the hospital two weeks ago.
(Osservatore Romano Via AP)
During his appearance Sunday, the pope coughed spasmodically, moved his head in a writhing motion and occasionally pressed his fingers to his temples.
Still, after silently delivering the blessing, he abruptly gestured to someone behind as if signaling that he was not yet ready to retreat into his apartment. When finally he was rolled away and a sheer curtain was drawn over the window, the crowd applauded warmly.
Observers in the crowd expressed mixed feelings as they left the square. "I was inspired," said Marcello Giuliani, from Calabria in southern Italy. "He wants us all to go on with good work until the last breath."
"Perhaps this is enough. The poor man. We should not demand more," said Marta Cordelia, a pilgrim from Lima, Peru. "We are taught to treat the sick well, and we can see he is suffering. It makes me sad."
"I am worried. This means he doesn't have much time left," said Maria Carmela of Palermo, Sicily, who was in tears.
In Poland, Cardinal Jozef Glemp said that "what the pope has shown the world during the last few days is very powerful and touching."
"He does not hide his suffering and pain but through it teaches us and speaks to us," Glemp told the Associated Press.
For the first time in his 26-year reign, John Paul II was unable to preside over any of the Easter week celebrations. Among the high-ranking prelates who stood in for him were three whom observers identify as running the church on the ailing pope's behalf: Cardinal Angelo Sodano, effectively the Vatican's prime minister; Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the chief guardian of Catholic doctrine; and Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the pope's deputy in his role as bishop of Rome. The pope's secretary, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, a fellow Pole, is at the pope's side day and night and relays message from him to his aides.
On Sunday, Sodano celebrated Easter Mass and read the traditional papal message to the congregation and television viewers in 74 countries. "Give also to us the strength to show generous solidarity toward the multitudes who are even today suffering and dying from poverty and hunger, decimated by fatal epidemics or devastated by immense natural disasters," Sodano said, reading words attributed to the pope.
John Paul II's aides have provided almost no information about his health since he left the Gemelli Polyclinic hospital on March 13. La Stampa newspaper reported that, according to one of the pope's doctors, John Paul II speaks in private, but the physical effort to speak publicly is much more difficult. His duties will have to be curtailed for "some weeks," said the doctor, who was not identified.