VATICAN CITY – People's hands flew to their faces and some wept as they witnessed Pope John Paul II's (search) struggle in front of a microphone, where he managed only a few sounds before he gave up and delivered his Easter blessing with a sign of the cross.
Many applauded the pontiff's efforts as his poor health prevented him from speaking to them on the holiest day of the church calendar in a dramatic appearance Sunday at his window overlooking St. Peter's Square (search).
"Look, it's Easter and everybody is so sad, and so many have tears in their eyes," said Hubert Wichert, from the German town of Essen, who was in the square.
For the first time since his papacy began in 1978, Easter Sunday Mass at the Vatican (search) was celebrated without the pope as he continued his convalescence following two recent hospitalizations for breathing crises. On Feb. 24, the pope had surgery to insert a tube in his throat to help him breathe. John Paul also suffers from Parkinson's disease, which makes it difficult for him to speak.
John Paul last spoke to the public March 13, shortly before he was discharged from the hospital for the second time.
In John Paul's native Poland, the country's Roman Catholic primate, Cardinal Jozef Glemp, said Poles feel even closer to the pope than they did before his latest health crisis.
"What the pope has shown the world during the last few days is very powerful and touching," Glemp told The Associated Press. "He does not hide his suffering and pain, but through it teaches us and speaks to us."
Because of his infirmities, the pope missed participating in all major Holy Week events and designated top cardinals to stand in for him.
The Vatican has not said whether the pope would appear at his window Monday for the traditional noon blessing the day after Easter.
On Sunday, the Vatican No. 2, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, celebrated Easter Mass in the flower-decked square, which was jammed with more than 50,000 people. It was seen by millions more in TV hookups in 74 countries.
John Paul appeared at his window after the service ended. He remained at the window for 12 minutes, looking stronger than he has in recent appearances. He tried — and failed — to speak at the end.
The Turin daily La Stampa quoted one of the pope's doctors on Sunday as saying that the pope does indeed speak regularly in private, but that public discourse is much more difficult for him.
"You must consider that the physical and psychological effort of a public speech, even a brief one, is radically different and something that requires much more effort for a recovering patient," the doctor was quoted as saying.
The doctor, who spoke to the paper on condition of anonymity, stressed that the pope was recovering well, but that he should continue to curtail his duties for "some weeks." Vatican officials have previously acknowledged the pope may be recovering more slowly than hoped.
In his Easter message read by Sodano, John Paul said people around the world were hungering for "truth, freedom, justice and peace."
American Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick said Sunday that John Paul must see his own ailments "as joining the sufferings of the Lord in a very special way."
But in an interview with the American television network ABC, he didn't discount a full recovery for the pope. "I think you know how many times we've crossed the Holy Father off, how many times we've counted him out and he's come back. He's come back strong, he's come back powerfully."