A top Vatican official responded to a sensitive question that many Roman Catholics have been asking for a while: Would ailing Pope John Paul II (search) ever consider stepping down?

"Let's leave that hypothesis up to the pope's conscience," said the Holy See's No. 2, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, in answer to a reporter's query Monday.

Sodano expressed hope that John Paul — hospitalized for a week with flu and breathing troubles — would surpass Pius IX's (search) 32 years in office, the longest papacy. Still, he surprised some observers by not ruling out a resignation, which could indicate there is debate within the Vatican on the issue. Popes may resign but cannot be forced to do so.

"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," said Sodano, the Vatican's secretary of state, who is often mentioned as a possible papal successor.

John Paul, 84 years old and in his 27th year as pontiff, has repeatedly said in the past that he has no intention of abdicating. On Sunday, in remarks read out by an archbishop, the pope appeared to reassert his ability to carry on by saying that even in the hospital, "I can continue to serve the church and the whole of humanity."

In 1994, after hip replacement surgery, he joked with his surgeon about the church law that would let him resign if he becomes incapacitated.

"Doctor, neither you nor I have any choice. You have to cure me because there is no room for a pope emeritus," he said at the time.

On Monday, papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls declined to comment on Sodano's remarks, which were front-page news in Italy on Tuesday.

The spokesman told reporters that John Paul continued to get better a week after his emergency admission Feb. 1 to the Gemelli Polyclinic (search), 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 pope, who is also weakened by Parkinson's disease. "Doctors have suggested several more days," he said.

The pope spent a sixth calm night at the hospital, the ANSA news agency reported Tuesday.

Cardinal Mario Francesco Pompedda, prefect of a Vatican tribunal, told the newspaper La Stampa in an interview Tuesday that the pope could continue to run the church even if he couldn't speak.

"It is sufficient that one's will be expressed, and be expressed in a clear way," Pompedda said. "It can be expressed very well through writing, and in any case can be expressed also with clear and significant gestures."

Meanwhile, a U.S. religious affairs magazine, Inside the Vatican, reported that when John Paul was rushed to the hospital, 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."

The Vatican's next medical bulletin on the pope's health is scheduled for Thursday.

Since John Paul's admission, gifts from well-wishers have been pouring in to the hospital.

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. 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.

On Tuesday, Polish musicians dressed in native costumes played stringed instruments and sang mountaineer songs from a resort where the Polish-born pope once skied. They carried a Polish flag and a statue of a Madonna on a pedestal surrounded by white and pink flowers.

Scores of letters also have been arriving for John Paul, among them a note from children being treated for cancer on the same floor as the pope. Hospital officials declined to say what the children told him.

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