ROME, March 20 -- Pope John Paul II briefly appeared at his apartment window and silently blessed the massive crowds that attended Palm Sunday Mass at St. Peter's Square, marking the first time in his 26-year papacy that he did not preside over or speak at the services that usher in Holy Week.
Dressed in his usual papal robes, John Paul first blessed the crowds with an olive branch in hand but moments later set it aside. He then covered his eyes with his right hand and pounded his palm once on a lectern, apparently frustrated by his inability to speak. The pope, 84, looked gaunt and weak during his 1 1/2-minute appearance, his third since he was released from the hospital a week ago.
Pope John Paul II, in the window of his Vatican residence, uses an olive branch to bless the crowd at St. Peter's Square. He appeared for 11/2 minutes.
(Domenico Stinellis -- AP)
Under blue skies, tens of thousands of people packed St. Peter's Square to attend the Mass. Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the vicar of Rome, presided and spoke of the pope as being a symbol of Jesus's suffering.
"The cross of Christ does not depress or weaken. On the contrary, it spouts new energy, which is reflected in the saints that have made the history of the church fruitful, and which today is reflected with particular clarity in the fatigue on the face of the Holy Father," Ruini said to the crowd.
After Ruini's homily, Archbishop Leonardo Sandri read the pope's weekly Angelus message, which was primarily dedicated to the children in the crowd. The message confirmed that World Youth Day, which John Paul founded 20 years ago as an international gathering of young Roman Catholics, would take place in August in Cologne, Germany. The message did not say whether the pope would personally participate.
The second to last phrase of John Paul's message echoed the very words he cried to the faithful the day he assumed his pontificate: "Non abbiate paura!" or "Have no fear!" The phrase has become a symbol of his relentless efforts to expand Catholicism to all corners of the world.
"I believe the Holy Father wanted to remind the youth that they are the strength of tomorrow," said the Rev. Ciro Benedettini, a Vatican spokesman.
From the start of the Mass, the pope's window was open, with a woven palm about 2 1/2 yards tall leaning against it. A white curtain blew in the warm breeze.
Two weeks ago, doctors performed a tracheostomy on the pope after he lapsed into spastic breathing fits. A tube inserted in his throat now helps him breathe. Although doctors have told him he should not talk, he has spoken briefly on two occasions to express his gratitude to well-wishers. He was released from the Gemelli Polyclinic hospital on March 13.
The pope has dedicated the responsibilities of Holy Week to senior cardinals. Vatican officials say they suspect he might be conserving his energy for his "Urbi et Orbi" -- Latin for "To the city and the world" -- blessing on Easter Sunday.
In Friday's Il Messaggero, a Roman daily newspaper, the headline above an article on the pope stated frankly: "The Pope is not well." The article noted the pope's brief appearance this past week on television with 1,200 young Romans. After he grasped his head in his hands twice and appeared to be in pain, the video transmission was stopped.
On Saturday, however, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, head of the Congregation for Bishops, suggested the pope's condition was improving. "The Holy Father is moving forward. The doctors especially are optimistic, and this is a nice thing, a good sign," he told the Ansa news service.
The children attending the Mass looked somber as the pope's message to them was read aloud. As soon as he appeared in his window, smiling children and tearful nuns erupted in a standing ovation.