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Pope Blesses Faithful Despite Health Questions

Looking gaunt, Pope John Paul II (search) appeared at his open studio window Wednesday and blessed the faithful gathered in St. Peter's Square.

In the approximately one-minute-long appearance, the ailing pontiff raised his hand in blessing a few times but didn't speak.

The appearance began nearly 15 minutes after the time the Vatican (search) said it would start. There was no immediate explanation for the delay.

Thousands of pilgrims and tourists looked up from the square to the third-floor window. John Paul traditionally holds a public audience on Wednesdays, but the Vatican had said on Tuesday that it wouldn't be held this week.

The pontiff's appearance was anxiously awaited by faithful after Italian news reports that the 84-year-old leader of the Roman Catholic Church (search) was not responding well to medication.

The announcement on Tuesday that the audience so popular with pilgrims from around the world would be held was widely seen as a sign that he was recovering more slowly than expected from throat surgery on Feb. 24 aimed at easing a breathing crisis.

The chief of the pope's medical team, reacting to suggestions in the Italian media that the pope's health had deteriorated suddenly, ruled out that John Paul might be sent back to the hospital after his discharge 10 days ago.

"No hospitalization of John Paul II is planned," the ANSA news agency quoted Dr. Rodolfo Proietti as saying Tuesday.

The Apcom news agency, quoting unnamed sources, said Tuesday that John Paul wasn't responding well to medication and had been vomiting. The agency said the pontiff was suffering from overall weakness and "strong" headaches.

John Paul scaled back his appearances since his back-to-back hospitalizations and designated cardinals to take his place during this week's busy Holy Week ceremonies. The Vatican only has confirmed one appointment for the pontiff — an Easter Sunday blessing.

The pope did not name a stand-in, however, for a Way of the Cross procession at the Colosseum on Good Friday evening, raising the possibility that he would participate in some fashion, although it appeared doubtful he would go to the site.

Vatican Television officials said they had installed cables and other equipment in the pope's apartment above St. Peter's Square for the possible transmission of a video to be seen by the pilgrims gathered at the Colosseum.

Before Wednesday's last-minute appointment at the window, John Paul had made three public appearances since being discharged from the hospital on March 13.

On Palm Sunday, when he blessed the crowd silently from the window, the pontiff pressed his hand to his head and pounded a lectern in apparent frustration over his difficulty in responding to the crowd.

It was the first time in 26 years as pope that he was unable to preside over the Mass ushering in Holy Week, the most important season on the Christian calendar and long one of his favorite appointments.

While his physical condition is "fragile," John Paul is "perfectly sound mentally," Cardinal Camillo Ruini, who stood in for the pope on Palm Sunday, said in an interview with the Italian magazine religious affairs weekly Famiglia Cristiana. Ruini said the pope "continues to carry out the acts of government and to assume the major decisions, as he has always done."

John Paul is convalescing at the Vatican following the surgery to insert a tube in his windpipe after his second breathing crisis in less than a month.

He suffers from Parkinson's disease, which affects muscle control and makes it difficult for him to speak clearly.

The pope's gaunt appearance lately led to speculation in the Italian media that his condition has suffered a sharp setback. Vatican officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, have denied there has been any sudden crisis, but acknowledge the convalescence may be behind schedule.

No details on his state of health have been released since the pope was last discharged from hospital.

The Vatican says the pope is carrying out his major duties. On Tuesday, it reported the pope had named new bishops in the Ivory Coast and Spain. Under church law, only a pope can nominate bishops.