Pope Celebrates Mass in St. Peter's Square

Pope John Paul II (search) greeted the faithful Sunday from his studio overlooking St. Peter's Square, returning to the world's most famous pulpit for the first time since a health crisis led to his emergency hospitalization.

The 84-year-old pontiff waved to the crowd and gave a brief greeting before the Vatican's No. 2, Cardinal Angelo Sodano (search), carried on with the papal message. The sea of worshippers gathered under his window erupted in applause at the sight of the pope.

"We meet again in this place to praise the Lord," the pope said in his message. "I would like to thank you — and those many following on radio and television — for your closeness, affection and above all prayer during my hospitalization at the Gemelli Polyclinic."

"I always need your help before the Lord, for carrying out my mission that Jesus entrusted to me," he said.

The Pope's Sunday message at St. Peter's is a cherished weekly tradition for Roman Catholics, and its resumption was certain to come as a big relief for believers around the world. Thousands of people packed the square to catch a glimpse of the pope, whose hand trembled as he waved but who looked alert.

John Paul's return to the Vatican coincided with his weeklong spiritual retreat beginning Sunday, scheduled before he fell ill. During that period all audiences will be suspended, including the pontiff's customary Wednesday public audience.

Speculation has mounted that John Paul, who suffers from Parkinson's disease, might resign. The debate was fueled last week when Sodano declined to rule out that possibility, saying it was up to the pope's "conscience."

In remarks apparently aimed at ending such talk, a top cardinal told an Italian newspaper that the pontiff was fully able to make decisions and that he probably would be able to travel to Cologne, Germany, in August for World Youth Day (search).

"I am in fact sure that ... he will continue to have the real capacity to work. ... That is expressed not only in his speeches but in the decisions that are taken," Cardinal Camillo Ruini told La Repubblica.

On Friday, the pope's first full day out of the hospital, the Vatican's official newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, also sought to quash resignation rumors with the headline: "The rudder is still in his hands."

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

The 84-year-old pontiff was rushed to the hospital on Feb. 1 with the flu and breathing difficulties. He returned to the Vatican Thursday.

The following day, the pope sent a message of support to the ailing on the Church's World Day of the Sick, but did not attend the Mass at St. Peter's Basilica.

In the message read out by Cardinal Ruini, the pope's vicar for Rome, John Paul said he felt "particularly close" to the sick.

"Your suffering is never useless, dear sick ones," the pope's message said. Pain is precious, he said, because it has a mysterious link to Christ's trial on the cross.

"For that reason the pope counts deeply on the importance of your prayers and your suffering," the message said. "Offer them up to the church and to the world, offer them also for me and for my mission as universal shepherd of the Christian people."

Ruini said the pope followed the service on television.

Since the pope's appearance last Sunday from his hospital room window, some have worried about his future at the head of the church because his very brief words were almost entirely inaudible.

The clearer delivery from his studio at St. Peter's was likely to help allay those fears.