Pope Alert, Meets with Bishops

Pope John Paul II (search) was alert and spoke in a clear voice Saturday as he read a note signed by dozens of bishops who gathered in the chapel of the Rome hospital treating the pontiff for flu and breathing troubles, the bishop who delivered the letter said Saturday.

Italian Bishop Vincenzo Paglia (search), who brought the note to John Paul's suite at Rome's Gemelli Polyclinic hospital, said the pope expressed joy and gratitude for the prayers of support.

"You can understand him easily," Paglia told reporters, describing how the pope turned the pages of the letter in his hands. The ANSA news agency quoted him as saying the pope spoke "with a clear timbre."

The pope will give his traditional blessing at midday Sunday from the hospital where he is being treated for the flu and breathing troubles, but an aide will read out the weekly Angelus prayer, the Vatican announced Saturday. It said it planned to televise Sunday's service but was still working out details.

A blessing consists of only a few words in Latin, generally, "May Almighty God bless you, Father, Son and Holy Spirit," and would be far less taxing on the pope than reading out the entire prayer.

The Vatican also said American Cardinal James Stafford (search) would preside in the name of the pope at an Ash Wednesday prayer service in St. Peter's Basilica. The service had been scheduled before the pope's illness in place of his regular general audience.

John Paul's fourth night in the hospital passed calmly, Vatican radio reported Saturday.

About 100 leaders from different branches of Christianity gathered Saturday in the hospital chapel to pray for his recovery. The clerics, who included Roman Catholic bishops as well as Orthodox and Lutheran ministers, were in Rome for the 37th anniversary of a Catholic aid organization.

"The pope is happy for the prayer. The pope is getting better — he is happy. We hope that he can return soon to take up his normal activities again," Paglia said.

On Friday, the Vatican said the pope's flu and breathing problems were improving and he was eating regular food again, but it did not specify when the pontiff could leave the hospital or resume his regular schedule.

The latest official medical bulletin from the Holy See said the pope's condition had stabilized and that his breathing had improved. Otherwise, it gave few details on the flu and respiratory troubles that led to the pontiff's urgent hospitalization on Tuesday night.

John Paul canceled a Friday meeting with Josep Borrell, the president of the European Parliament. Borrell met instead with Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano, as will U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice when she visits Tuesday, officials said.

The Vatican dashed expectations that the pope might address a long-planned gathering of seminarians at the Vatican later Saturday by a hookup from his 10th-floor room in the Roman Catholic hospital. Instead, an emissary was to read a speech in the pope's name.

But Sunday's traditional prayer appearance was something the pope "doesn't want to miss," papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said.

Usually, John Paul addresses a crowd from a window above St. Peter's Square. The diocese of Rome has urged the faithful to turn out anyway in the vast square, where the Angelus — as the noon prayer is called — might appear on a giant screen.

Without committing to the idea, officials have said one possibility is a broadcast hookup from the papal suite at the hospital. Some reports have suggested the speech could be recorded in advance or be read by an aide.

A member of the papal entourage at the hospital said the pope's difficulty speaking is one problem in deciding how to handle the event.

The pope's age and Parkinson's disease make his flu more dangerous, and doctors were watching him closely for any signs of complications. Chest infections are common in Parkinson's patients because they often have swallowing mishaps where food or saliva go down to the lungs instead of the stomach.

Patriarch Alexy II, the head of Russia's Orthodox Church — whose relations with the Roman Catholic Church have been strained and have thwarted John Paul's longtime desire to visit Russia — sent his "fraternal prayers" in a telegram to the pope.

The pontiff was rushed by ambulance to Gemelli late Tuesday after suffering what the Vatican called an inflamed windpipe and spasms of the larynx, or voice box, which had made it difficult for him to breathe. Navarro-Valls has suggested John Paul may spend a week in the tightly guarded hospital, without giving a specific date for his release.