Roman Catholic faithful prayed for Pope John Paul II's recovery as he missed out on Ash Wednesday prayers that ushered in the solemn and sacred Lenten season for the first time in his 26-year papacy.

Though the Vatican says the 84-year-old pope's health continues to improve since he was rushed to the hospital Feb. 1 with breathing spasms and the flu, doctors have persuaded him to prolong his stay to be on the safe side. His eighth night in the hospital passed calmly, the ANSA news agency said early Wednesday.

In services later at St. Peter's Basilica (search), American Cardinal James Stafford (search) presided in the name of John Paul — a reluctant substitution for a pope deeply stirred by the traditional period of penitence, sacrifice and reflection that culminates with Easter.

Stafford read his own homily in Italian, conveying no message from the pope to the Vatican's resident cardinals, archbishops, bishops and others assembled for a ceremony originally scheduled as a papal event.

Several thousand faithful attended the prayer service, which involved the sprinkling of ashes on prelates and believers.

"In addressing you, brothers and sisters, I feel the joy and the honor of leading this solemn ceremony in the name of the Holy Father," said the American cardinal, who heads the Apostolic Penitentiary (search), a Vatican tribunal that deals with excommunications and other issues.

"We feel his spiritual presence among us and we remember him with affection while asking the Lord to grant him the graces necessary for his charisma as primate to unite the brothers in the faith," Stafford said.

An unidentified layman offered a prayer asking God to "grant health and comfort to our beloved Pope John Paul II so that he may continue his pastoral ministry for the good of the church and all humanity."

The Vatican did not say whether the pope did anything special in his room at Rome's Gemelli Polyclinic (search) hospital to mark Ash Wednesday, a holiday he hasn't missed with public prayers since he became pope in 1978.

Officials say the pontiff has been holding Mass regularly for the doctors and nurses treating him at the clinic. John Paul is expected to remain there at least until Thursday, when the Holy See issues its next medical update.

Ash Wednesday traditionally kicks off a few weeks of spiritual reflection for the pope ahead of the taxing Holy Week services, which culminate with Easter on March 27.

With the pope in such frail health, it remained unclear whether he would be able to preside over the traditional March 25 Good Friday prayer service at the Colosseum re-enacting Christ's Passion.

He has long since stopped walking in the Colosseum procession while carrying a cross; in recent years, the faithful have carried the cross and made the symbolic Stations of the Cross walk while the pope observed and read a homily.

The pope's long struggle with Parkinson's disease (search) and crippling hip and knee ailments have many Roman Catholics questioning how long he can continue to serve.

The Vatican's No. 2 official, Cardinal Angelo Sodano (search), caused a stir this week by publicly suggesting for the first time that the Vatican may be discussing the sensitive issue.

Popes may resign but cannot be forced to do so, and John Paul repeatedly has said he has no intention of abdicating. The last time a pope willingly resigned was in the 13th century.

"It is bad taste to talk about it, and it's even worse because the starting point of this debate is the pope's flu," a leading Italian cardinal, Giovanni Battista Re, told the newspaper La Repubblica on Wednesday.