A voiceless, sick Pope John Paul II missed Sunday’s Angelus prayer for the first time in his 26-year papacy, but he made a brief appearance afterward at his 10th-floor hospital window, touched his crippled throat and blessed an excited gathering below.
The glimpse of the 84-year-old pontiff, dressed in his traditional white vestments and gesturing with determination, was meant to reassure the world’s 1 billion Roman Catholics about their leader’s condition. He had not been seen in public since an emergency tracheostomy on Thursday to ease critical breathing problems, his second health crisis this month.
The pope’s appearance came after an aide read on his behalf the weekly prayer that he had never missed, until Sunday. Archbishop Leonardo Sandri led the ceremony at St. Peter’s Square, several miles from the Gemelli Polyclinic hospital where the pope is housed, and asked for support for the ailing pontiff.
“I thank you with affection and feel you all spiritually near,” John Paul said in the message read by Sandri.
“I ask you to continue to accompany me, above all with your prayers.”
A few minutes after Sandri finished the prayer, television footage showed the blinds on the pope’s hospital window being suddenly opened. Then, to the surprise of the hordes of journalists below, John Paul was wheeled up to the window, which remained closed against the cold.
He gestured a blessing, making a sweeping sign of the cross with his outstretched hand, then waved. And then he appeared to clutch his throat, as if to explain his silence, or maybe to adjust the tube surgically inserted into his windpipe. As he was being wheeled away from the window, he again blessed the crowd. He appeared relatively alert but weary.
His most trusted aides were at his side, and the official Vatican photographer was present, snapping away.
Vatican officials had announced Saturday that the pope would not participate in the Sunday prayer nor bless the crowd from his window, as has been his custom.
That appeared to be the officials’ effort to hedge their bets: If the pope did not feel well enough to make an appearance, it would not cause commotion, but if he felt up to a gesture at his window, the media reaction would be one of positive surprise.
The strategy worked at least in part: The broadcaster for RAI state television gushed that seeing the pope had been “a wonderful gift.”
Traditionally, the Sunday Angelus is held wherever the pope is. When he was in the hospital earlier this month, he led the noontime blessing on Feb. 6 from his hospital suite, blessed the crowd from the window, and the events were broadcast live to television screens erected in St. Peter’s Square.
Four days after he was shot by a would-be assassin in 1981, the pope managed to address his followers from the hospital, as he did again following surgery to remove an intestinal tumor in 1992, when he tape-recorded the message and it was broadcast for all to hear.
In the words read by Sandri, John Paul ruminated on man’s suffering in this pre-Easter Lenten season of penitence and sacrifice, which he said “helps us to better understand the value of suffering that, one way or another, touches us all.
“And looking at Christ and following him with patient trust, we succeed in understanding that every human form of pain brings with it a divine promise of salvation and joy,” the pope said. “I would like that this message of comfort and hope reaches everyone, especially those going through difficult moments, and those who suffer in body and spirit.”