Pope Skips Weekly Audience

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Even if he couldn't speak, Pope John Paul II (search) would bring a powerful spiritual presence to Germany if he makes his only scheduled foreign trip of the year for a World Youth Day gathering this summer, a German cardinal said Wednesday.

Cardinal Joachim Meisner (search) of Cologne told reporters after meeting with John Paul in his room at Rome's Gemelli Polyclinic (search) that the 84-year-old pontiff greeted him, saying: "I'm happy to see you here."

Meisner said he still expected to see the pope in Germany in August, and he called Wednesday's brief hospital stop "very important to me because all Germans are waiting for the pope in Cologne."

"It's not important that the pope speak with the many, many young people, but it's his presence that's important," the cardinal said. "The person of the Holy Father speaks a lot."

John Paul skipped his popular weekly audience with the faithful Wednesday while concentrating on regaining his ability to speak and continuing to work on church matters from his hospital suite in Rome.

The Holy See said there would be no substitute for the pontiff for the public audience, which usually draws thousands of pilgrims and is held in a Vatican auditorium or, in good weather, in St. Peter's Square.

John Paul was brought to Gemelli on Feb. 24 with breathing difficulties, the same problem that sent him racing there in an ambulance earlier in February for a 10-day stay.

The latest hospital stay, which prompted doctors to cut a hole in his windpipe to help his breathing, is widely expected to be longer after some top Vatican officials suggested he was discharged too soon the first time.

"Doctors give us encouraging news, but we need to wait," Cardinal Achille Silvestrini was quoted as saying in the Corriere della Sera newspaper Wednesday.

"It's nice to see how much interest the figure of the Holy Father attracts," added Silvestrini, referring to the intense media attention to the pope's condition. "But maybe media, too, should take note in the fact that the pope needs resting."

A preacher who loves crowds, John Paul is especially fond of his Wednesday audiences. Last week, a day before he was hospitalized, he addressed the faithful via a video hookup from a Vatican palace, even though he couldn't make it to the auditorium.

On Tuesday, one of the pope's closest aides, German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, said the pontiff spoke to him in German and Italian and was "able to say the essential things with his voice."

There has been concern whether the pope, worn down by years of Parkinson's disease, could regain his speech after the throat surgery.

Ratzinger, the head of the important Vatican office to safeguard doctrinal orthodoxy, told reporters that he gave John Paul material to review and that the "fully mentally alert" pontiff would work on the papers in his 10th-floor hospital apartment.

With speculation about a possible papal resignation swirling for weeks now, Ratzinger's rare briefing was an indication that the Vatican is intent on shaping an image of a pontiff in charge of the church and carrying out its business.

"The church is not a company and it is not a state. Its government is a spiritual government," Silvestrini told Corriere.

The Vatican has never officially said that the pope has Parkinson's disease, a neurological disease that robs sufferers of muscle control, although some top cardinals have spoken of his having it.

But in an interview with Vatican Radio before visiting the pope at the hospital, Ratzinger noted that an association for Parkinson's sufferers had written to him to express gratitude for the pope's helping the "image" of those afflicted and for showing "courage" by continuing in his work while suffering.

John Paul's stamina and past ability to rebound have won admirers.

"You see him and he looks dead, and then after two days you see him up again — I don't know what they do to him," Emanuele Di Veroli, a souvenir vendor near St. Peter's Square, said of the pope and his doctors.

Many hope the next Vatican medical bulletin, due Thursday, will indicate when the pope might leave the hospital. Some Italian reports suggest he could be under medical care at least until Easter — March 27.

British Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor said it appeared the pope will "do what he can" to manage top-level church affairs while undergoing medical treatment and therapy.

About 100 Polish pilgrims, including Polish-Americans from Chicago and handicapped youths who originally came to Rome for the weekly audience, instead went to the hospital early Wednesday. They carried red roses, prayed beneath the pope's window and sang hymns.

"We don't expect to see the pope. The important thing is he knows we are here for him," said Agneska Sopata, a 22-year-old architecture student.