VATICAN CITY – Pope John Paul II spoke with a top Vatican official in German and Italian on Tuesday, the cardinal said, suggesting the ailing pontiff was making significant strides toward recovery after throat surgery to ease a breathing crisis.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (search) told reporters that John Paul used both languages in a working meeting at Rome's Gemelli Polyclinic (search) hospital, where the 84-year-old pope is recovering from last week's operation to insert a breathing tube in his throat.
"The pope spoke with me in German and in Italian," Ratzinger said, declining to say how long the pope talked. "I am happy to say that the Holy Father is fully alert mentally and also able to say the essential things."
John Paul's condition is improving, the Vatican spokesman added Tuesday as the pontiff underwent speech and respiratory therapy.
"He is well. His condition is improving," papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls (search) told reporters at Gemelli.
Tuesday marked a month since John Paul's latest health crisis began: He was rushed to the hospital with his first breathing difficulties on Feb. 1 and was released on Feb. 10, only to return last Thursday.
Navarro-Valls said the pope "spent a good night" at the hospital and was preparing to concelebrate Mass in his suite on the 10th floor of the Rome hospital.
"Everything is normal," the spokesman said. "He is a good patient."
The Holy See, however, said that John Paul's normal Wednesday audience, in which he blesses the faithful at the Vatican, would not be held by the pope or by a stand-in.
Navarro-Valls also said the pope was continuing his voice exercises, but did not elaborate. The Rome daily Il Messaggero reported Tuesday that the pope hopes to be able to pronounce the words "Thank you" at next Sunday's prayer.
Throat specialists, including one who attended the pope's operation last Thursday to cut a breathing hole into his windpipe, said patients like John Paul should be able to speak normally again, although not as loudly.
But even as the Vatican insists the pontiff's recovery is proceeding uneventfully, Parkinson's specialists said the debilitating neurological disease may well figure in more breathing crises for the pontiff.
"We are in a stage where it's evident that the patient is fragile because of progression of a disease with a 15-, 20-year history," said Giovanni Fabbrini, a neurologist at Rome's Umberto I Polyclinic and a member of Sapienza's University neurological sciences department.
"He's over the average age of 78" and he is "vulnerable" to more such respiratory problems, said Dr. Fabbrini, stressing that he hasn't examined John Paul.
Among other potential complications are accumulations of secretions in the respiratory system.
The Vatican has offered few details on the pope's condition or said when he might be able to leave the hospital, and Navarro-Valls has dismissed the idea of a daily health bulletin. The next one is expected on Thursday.
In its latest medical update on Monday, the Vatican said the pope's "postoperative phase is taking place without complications" and his general condition was good.
"The Holy Father is eating regularly, spends some hours in an armchair and has begun exercises to rehabilitate breathing and phonation," the communique said.
On Sunday, the pope made a silent appearance at his hospital room window, at one point placing his hand on his throat.
"It was as if to say, 'I can't speak," Navarro-Valls told Vatican Radio. "I think it was very moving for everyone."
For John Paul, "suffering is a special form of preaching," top Cardinal Ratzinger told Vatican Radio on Tuesday before heading to the hospital for what the ANSA news agency, citing Vatican sources, called a working meeting with the pope.
Ratzinger, a German who heads the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said an association of Parkinson's patients had written a note to thank the pope for his "courage" in his mission.
A group of about 55 Polish pilgrims from Olsztyn prayed beneath the pope's room on Tuesday, and brought him some presents from their hometown: Polish honey for the pontiff's throat and some drawings by children hospitalized in Olsztyn, said Viktor Nichtmauser, a member of the group.
Before arriving in Rome, the pilgrims went to Assisi to pray for the pope.
The Vatican has not described the pope's speech therapy.
Enrico Decampora, an ear, nose and throat specialist from the University of Florence who attended the pope's tracheotomy, said speech therapy in these circumstances consists of "elementary rehabilitation."