VATICAN CITY – Pope John Paul II (search) is "progressively improving" and following church activities daily, the Vatican said Thursday, suggesting he might be released from the hospital in time for Easter.
Papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said the wound on John Paul's throat after surgery to insert a breathing tube was healing. He said the frail, 84-year-old pontiff wants to return to the Vatican, "but at the same time, he accepts doctors' advice" not to rush back after suffering his second breathing crisis in a month.
The pope has been receiving several top churchmen "with whom he daily follows the activity of the Holy See and the life of the church," Navarro-Valls told reporters.
He said the Vatican would decide Saturday what the pope's schedule for Sunday would be, but that it was likely that an archbishop would read prayers and bless the faithful just as this past Sunday. He implied that the pope might make another appearance at his hospital window Sunday.
Asked whether the pope might be back at the Vatican in time for Easter celebrations on March 27, Navarro-Valls told The Associated Press: "It's possible." He said the Vatican was going ahead with its regular schedule for Easter — Christianity's most solemn holiday — and that if the pope was released beforehand, his level of participation would still have to be decided.
Illustrating how the ailing pope is trying to attend to church business from his suite at Rome's Gemelli Polyclinic (search), the Holy See said John Paul on Thursday sent a message to a Vatican congregation that was holding its general assembly.
"I accompany you with my prayers, while blessing all of you from my heart," said the message, which was sent to Cardinal Francis Arinze, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments.
"The health of the Holy Father John Paul II continues to improve and show progress," the spokesman said. "As previously stated, the pope is eating regularly and spends several hours each day in an armchair. The surgical wound is healing."
The Vatican has not said whether the breathing tube has been removed or how long it may have to stay in.
He said the pope's daily therapy to improve his ability to breathe and speak were continuing "with the active collaboration of the Holy Father," and that the next medical update was not expected until Monday.
Navarro-Valls said the pope spends some time in the small chapel adjoining his room.
The Holy See has yet to set even a target date for the pope's discharge from the hospital, suggesting doctors are prolonging his stay to enhance his chances of recovery. Some have criticized the Vatican for discharging him too early after an earlier respiratory crisis last month.
"There's no precise date yet. I wouldn't want to put forth a likely date because it might change in a positive or negative way," Navarro-Valls said.
The Vatican has sought to portray John Paul's condition in a positive light, emphasizing the visitors he has seen and suggesting that an August trip to Cologne, Germany, for World Youth Day is still on. The stop is the only foreign visit on this year's schedule for the pope, who has made 104 international trips in his 26-year papacy but has drastically cut back on travel in the past few years.
The pope's ability to endure the rigors of a trip depend on his latest recovery, which is complicated by Parkinson's disease (search), which causes gradual loss of muscle control. The pope also suffers from crippling hip and knee ailments.
He was taken by ambulance to Gemelli with breathing spasms on Feb. 1 and was released on Feb. 10, only to be rushed back again Feb. 24 for a throat operation that left him with a breathing tube and facing extensive speech and respiratory therapy.
"I don't think the situation of the pope is as bad as many people think because a tracheotomy does not mean that there is a problem in the larynx that cannot be solved in the near future," Dr. Stefano Di Girolamo, an ear, nose and throat specialist at Rome's Tor Vergata University, told Associated Press Television News on Thursday.
Ambassadors to the Vatican from several Latin American countries went to the hospital Thursday to pay their respects and inquire about the pope's well-being. They did not see John Paul.
"We brought the affection and greetings of our people," said the Mexican envoy, Javier Moctezuma Barragan.