Pope John Paul II's spokesman has hinted that the ailing pontiff might be discharged soon from the hospital, saying he hopes the next scheduled medical bulletin will be the last.

Weakened by years of battling Parkinson's disease (search), the 84-year-old pontiff was rushed by ambulance late night Feb. 1 to Rome's Gemelli hospital for emergency treatment of breathing problems a couple of days after coming down with the flu.

John Paul's ninth night in his private mini-ward on the 10th floor was uneventful, the Italian news agency reported shortly before dawn Thursday.

Doctors at Gemelli have been mum about the pope's condition, but the Vatican press office has been issuing its own medical bulletin every few days.

Noting that the next bulletin was due Thursday at noon, papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls told the Italian news agency ANSA Wednesday night: "And I hope it will be the last."

That comment was interpreted by some as a sign the pope's return to the Vatican to continue his recovery would come soon, possibly Friday or Saturday.

The last previous bulletin was issued on Monday, and spoke of the pope's continued improvement, but Vatican officials have declined to name a date for a possible discharge.

A return late this week to his apartment in the Vatican's Apostolic Palace (search) would coincide with a traditional Lenten period of spiritual reflection for the pontiff with no public ceremonies. That way, the pontiff could try to regain strength without having to cancel anything.

In a downside first for his 26-year-old papacy, John Paul was forced to skip the Ash Wednesday (search) ritual in St. Peter's Basilica because of his hospitalization.

Faithful and churchmen will be watching Sunday to see if he makes another window appearance like he did last week.

Resuming his regular Sunday prayer appointment at his studio window overlooking St. Peter's Square would be a big boost to those wanting reassurance the pontiff is determined to resume his routine at the helm of the Roman Catholic Church.

Last Sunday, he waved from his hospital room window, but the words of his brief blessing were largely inaudible, prompting speculation his frail health might force him to consider the prospect of resigning.

A remark earlier this week by the Vatican's No. 2 official about the possibility of a papal resignation set off a prickly debate among top cardinals and papal advisers.

No pope has resigned for centuries, and John Paul has said repeatedly he intends to carry out his mission until the end.

Cardinal Angelo Sodano, who as secretary of state, comes after the pope in the Vatican's hierarchy, said the hypothesis of a papal resignation should be left "up to the pope's conscience."

Other leading cardinals have echoed that assessment.

But another cardinal, Giovanni Battista Re, who as head of the Congregation of Bishops is one of the pope's top collaborators, criticized such talk as "bad taste."