Well-Wishers Send Gifts, Messages to Pope

A 6-foot flower arrangement. Children's letters. A harp made of matchsticks. From inmates at prisons he has visited to diplomats from one of the few countries he hasn't, an ailing Pope John Paul II is being flooded with get-well gifts.

No letup in the flow of good wishes was expected at the Gemelli Polyclinic (search), with the Vatican (search) saying Monday that the pope would stay in the hospital at least a few more days as a precaution.

The gifts and notes started arriving last Wednesday, when pilgrims from John Paul's native Poland brought red and white flowers in the colors of their flag.

Hard to miss was a nearly 6-foot-tall arrangement of roses in yellow and white, the official colors of the Vatican, sent by the Libyan Embassy (search). Libya is one of the few nations that the pope hasn't toured in his papal globe-trotting, which has taken him to 104 countries.

Hospital staff quickly dispatched overflow floral arrangements to Rome churches. Flowers from the governments of Libya and Qatar decorated the hospital chapel.

Some of the gifts and messages evoke significant moments in John Paul's papacy, like the ones brought Monday by an inmate in the name of two Rome prisons, Regina Coeli and Rebibbia.

The prisoner, whom officials didn't identify, carried a harp inmates fashioned out of matchsticks and a wood carving of a tiny boot to remind John Paul of his hiking days.

John Paul visited Regina Coeli in 2000 to repeat his appeal for clemency for prisoners worldwide. In 1983, he went to Rebibbia to forgive Mehmet Ali Agca, the Turk who shot and gravely wounded the pope two years earlier.

Agca sent the pope a get-well wish last week, in childlike handwriting in Italian.

Another note came from children being treated for cancer on the same floor as the pope. Hospital officials declined to say what the children told the pope.

"All the letters will be collected and they will receive an answer," said hospital spokesman Nicola Cerbino.

The tributes were testimony to the special regard much of the world holds for the pope, among both Catholics and non-Catholics, as well as to the widespread concern for his health.

With the new health crisis again stimulating talk about whether the frail pontiff should or would retire, the Holy See's No. 2 official, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, took the unusual step of responding to a reporter's question Monday about whether the pope had thought about resigning.

"Let's leave this hypothesis up to the pope's conscience," said Sodano, an Italian who is Vatican secretary of state.

"If there is a man who loves the church more than anybody else, who is guided by the Holy Spirit, if there is a man who has marvelous wisdom, that's him. We must have great faith in the pope. He knows what to do," Sodano added.

Just a few minutes earlier, Sodano had expressed a wish that John Paul — now in his 27th year as pontiff — would surpass Pius IX's 32 years in office as the longest papacy.

But while he rooted for the pope to continue, Sodano's addressing of a long-taboo subject could indicate there is debate within the Vatican over whether the pope might step down. Popes may resign but cannot be forced to do so.

In his only public appearance while hospitalized, John Paul waved from his 10th floor room's window Sunday and thanked people for their support, but few of the words in his brief comment were audible. In a written message, John Paul made clear he was still firmly in charge of the church.

Papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls told reporters that the pope continued to get better a week after his emergency admission to Gemelli with breathing problems that developed with the flu, but that "his doctors have advised him to stay a few more days."

Navarro-Valls refused to be pinned down on a discharge date for the 84-year-old pope, who is also weakened by Parkinson's disease. "Doctors have suggested several more days," he said.

The next medical bulletin from the Vatican is scheduled for Thursday.

A U.S. religious affairs magazine, Inside the Vatican, reported that when John Paul was rushed to the hospital Feb. 1, he was gasping for breath and wracked with coughing fits and would have died within 10 minutes if not hospitalized.

Asked about the report, a Vatican official said the situation was "serious, very serious" when John Paul was taken to the hospital at 10:50 p.m.

"If it were controllable, he would have been taken to the hospital the next morning," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Shortly after John Paul was taken to Gemelli, Vatican officials told The Associated Press that the pontiff's aides decided on urgent hospitalization because he was having a breathing "crisis."