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Pope's Condition Stabilizes

Breathing Problems to Keep Pontiff Hospitalized Several Days

By Sarah Delaney
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, February 3, 2005; Page A23

ROME, Feb. 2 -- Pope John Paul II said Mass with associates and received dignitaries at his hospital bed Wednesday, as Vatican officials reported that his respiratory illness had stabilized. He will remain in Gemelli Polyclinic hospital for the next few days at least, they added.

The pope was running a slight fever and needed help breathing after he was hospitalized Tuesday night with a constricted larynx that blocked air to his lungs, said Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the Vatican spokesman. He suffered the blockage and coughing spasms after he became ill with the flu on Sunday.

Priests cross St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, where well-wishers gathered during the day to pray for the pope. (Andrew Medichini -- AP)

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"I think everyone has to be calm, because there is no reason for alarm today," said Navarro-Valls, who is a physician. "Respiratory assistance therapy has permitted the stabilization of the medical condition." Navarro-Valls said the pope had neither lost consciousness nor undergone a tracheotomy to facilitate breathing.

Italy's health minister, Girolamo Sirchia, who visited the pope in his 10th-floor room Wednesday, declared on leaving the hospital that "he is improving, and the doctors are optimistic. I'm more optimistic today than yesterday."

The mayor of Rome also called on the pope. According to a Vatican statement, the pontiff also appointed two Brazilian bishops and one Croatian.

Romans and travelers gathered in St. Peter's Square to pray for the pope, and special services were held on his behalf at Catholic institutes throughout the city. Mariusz Salach, a student at the Pontifical Gregorian University, said the seminarians there had prayed for the pope at morning Mass. "We know we are special for him, because many years ago he stayed at this college and left it to go to the conclave, got elected pope and never came back to stay." John Paul II has been pope for 26 years.

In communities around the world, Roman Catholics offered special prayers. In Wadowice, Poland, the pope's home town of 20,000 people, prayers were said at St. Mary's church, where the former Karol Wojtyla was baptized and attended Mass years before he became a priest, the Associated Press reported. In Washington, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said that Americans' "thoughts and prayers are with the holy father."

A wave of influenza has swept Italy in the past two months, and John Paul II, 84, who sometimes has difficulty breathing due to Parkinson's disease, is especially vulnerable to the coughing and fever associated with the illness, as well as pneumonia. The leader of the world's 1 billion Roman Catholics had been relatively robust in recent months and kept a busy schedule. On Sunday, he appeared at his studio window to release a pair of doves over the crowd of pilgrims below. He laughed heartily when the birds flew back into the apartment.

A Vatican official who spoke on condition of anonymity said that while there was great concern about complications from the flu, "we understood from the attitude of the doctors there was no reason for excessive worry."

Keith Pecklers, a Jesuit theologian at the Gregorian University, said that "my understanding is that there was justifiably a sense of panic because he is old."

Augustine di Noia, Undersecretary for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith expressed relief at the day's news, saying that "everybody's happy that it does not appear to be terribly serious."

Outside the hospital, well-wishers joined a throng of reporters in a forest of satellite dishes waiting for news. "I'm praying for good news," said Maria Civita, 70. She arrived at daybreak after a 20-mile drive. "He always pulls through. That's why they call him God's athlete."

Hours after her shift ended, Leah Mima, a nurse, remained in the lobby gripping a newspaper. "It's hard to go home. This is my house and the pope is my guest."

The pope has been treated several times at Gemelli Polyclinic, a Catholic teaching hospital where he was first taken with gunshot wounds after an assassination attempt on May 13, 1981. In July 1992, a benign tumor was removed from his intestine. In November 1993, he received treatment for a dislocated right shoulder suffered in a fall at the Vatican. In April 1994, Gemelli doctors performed surgery after he broke a thigh bone.

Special correspondent Stacy Meichtry contributed to this report.

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