VATICAN CITY – Pope John Paul II (search) left a Rome hospital in his white popemobile Thursday, 10 days after suffering breathing spasms that left him bedridden and rekindled debate about his ability to continue leading the Roman Catholic Church.
Under heavy security, the 84-year-old pope was bundled into the vehicle inside a covered entrance to Rome's Gemelli Polyclinic (search) to shield him from the winter chill. Police sealed off St. Peter's Square to tourists, and hundreds of cheering Romans lined the route to the Vatican.
The pontiff waved to the crowds and blessed the faithful standing along the 21/2-mile route to the Vatican. His return was broadcast live on television.
The bulletproof popemobile is equipped with a hydraulic lift, which makes it easier for the pontiff, who walks with difficulty, to get into than a limousine.
Papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said at midday Thursday that the frail pope had recovered completely from the breathing crisis that led to his urgent hospitalization Feb. 1, and his general condition continued to improve.
Navarro-Valls said a battery of tests, including a CT scan, had ruled out any new illnesses.
The pope, who also suffers from Parkinson's disease (search) and crippling hip and knee ailments, was rushed by ambulance to Gemelli two days after coming down with the flu. A Vatican official said the situation was "serious, very serious" when he first arrived at the hospital.
The pope's return to his apartment in the Vatican's Apostolic Palace coincided with the start of a traditional Lenten period of spiritual reflection for the pontiff, during which he has no public ceremonies. The break will give the pope a chance to regain his strength before Easter services without having to cancel anything.
"When he gets back to the Vatican he will look over and decide with his doctors what his appointments will be," Navarro-Valls said.
John Paul also planned to send a thank-you note to the doctors and nurses who attended him, the spokesman said.
John Paul's hospitalization forced him to skip the Ash Wednesday ritual in St. Peter's Basilica for the first time in his 26-year papacy.
Doctors at Gemelli never publicly discussed the pope's condition, but the Vatican press office issued its own medical bulletin every few days tersely describing his continued improvement. His doctors persuaded him to prolong his hospitalization just to be on the safe side.
The faithful will be watching Sunday to see if he makes another window appearance like he did last week from the hospital. Throughout the pope's hospitalization, scores of pilgrims from all over the world stood vigil beneath his window, trying to cheer him with prayers and songs.
A resumption of the pope's regular Sunday prayer appointment at his studio window overlooking St. Peter's Square would be a big boost to those wanting reassurance the pontiff has resumed his routine at the helm of the Roman Catholic Church.
Last Sunday, he waved from a hospital window, but the words of his brief blessing were largely inaudible, prompting speculation that his feeble health might prompt him to consider resigning.
Asked about the pope's ability to speak, Navarro-Valls said Thursday, "I heard him this morning." He did not elaborate.
A remark earlier this week by Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican's No. 2 official, about the possibility of a papal resignation set off a sensitive debate among top cardinals and papal advisers.
No pope has resigned for centuries, and John Paul repeatedly has said he intends to carry out his mission until his death.