VATICAN CITY – Pope John Paul II (search) made a surprise appearance Wednesday at an open window of his apartment overlooking St. Peter's Square (search), his first public appearance since being released from the hospital after throat surgery to ease a breathing crisis.
The 84-year-old pontiff appeared briefly to pilgrims who had gathered on the square on a day when the pope typically greets the faithful in a weekly public audience. He made the sign of the cross and waved to several thousand pilgrims on the square on a mild March day.
The Vatican (search) had said Tuesday that John Paul would skip the audience and had no plans to appear. He lingered no longer than a minute at the window.
The pope was released from Rome's Gemelli Polyclinic hospital on Sunday after a 2 1/2 week stay following surgery on Feb. 24 to insert a breathing tube in his windpipe. Vatican officials have said it will be up to John Paul's doctors to decide whether and when to remove the tube.
John Paul, who also has Parkinson's disease and crippling hip and knee ailments, is being closely monitored by his physicians, who are advising him on how much he can exert himself.
The Vatican has given no indication of the pope's schedule for the coming days except to confirm he will give his traditional blessing on Easter Sunday, March 27. Holy Week celebrations begin this weekend with Palm Sunday.
Officials said the acute phase of the breathing crisis that sent the pope to the hospital for the second time in a month was over, but he would continue his recovery at the Vatican. A medical bulletin initially planned for Monday was canceled after his discharge from the hospital.
The Italian news agency Apcom reported this week that the pope's apartment overlooking St. Peter's Square has been sterilized to reduce the risk of infection.
Throat specialists who haven't treated the pope have said breathing tubes usually are either taken out within a few days or left in indefinitely.
Leaving the tube in place allows health personnel to quickly deal with emergencies like the breathing crises. But having a hole for an extended time makes patients more vulnerable to infections.
In announcing his release from Gemelli on Sunday, the Vatican made clear that the pope was not cured — merely well enough to continue his convalescence back at his apartment "in agreement with the attending physicians."
His latest health crisis has raised new questions about his ability to continue leading the Roman Catholic Church.
John Paul heartened many followers Sunday when he uttered his first words in public since having the Feb. 24 tracheotomy surgery. A breathing crisis had first sent him to Gemelli for 10 days in early February. His latest hospitalization lasted 17 days.