VATICAN CITY - Touching his throat fitted with a breathing tube, Pope John Paul II on Sunday made a surprise first public appearance after surgery, appearing at his hospital window just moments after a Vatican official stood on the steps of St. Peter's Basilica to read the pontiff's appeal for prayers.
The 84-year-old pope did not speak during his one-minute greeting from Rome's Gemelli Polyclinic hospital, but sent an implicit and powerful message about his determination to maintain continuity in the church.
The appearance - in which the seated pope waved and appeared alert - raised hopes he was making progress following a tracheotomy Thursday to ease a breathing crisis. The Vatican had previously announced John Paul would skip his weekly blessing - a 26-year tradition he did not miss even after he was shot in 1981 and recovered from an operation in 1992.
The Vatican's undersecretary of state, Archbishop Leonardo Sandri, read a message from the pope while standing between the towering statues of St. Peter and St. Paul outside the basilica.
"Dear brothers and sisters, once again I address you from the Agostino Gemelli Polyclinic," Sandri told about 5,000 people in the square, relaying the pope's message as a chill wind picked up. White drapes were drawn over the window where the pope often gives his weekly address.
"I thank you with affection and feel you all spiritually near," Sandri said on behalf of the pontiff. "I think of you gathered in St. Peter's Square, alone and in groups that have come, and to all those from every part of the world who are interested in me. I ask you to continue to accompany me, above all with your prayers."
Minutes later - at the hospital 2½ miles away - curtains were pulled back from the pope's 10th-floor suite. He was wheeled to the closed window as the Vatican's No. 2 official, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, stood alongside. A Vatican photographer in the room snapped pictures.
The pope, wearing his usual white robe, waved with his right hand and made signs of the cross to about 200 people on the hospital grounds. He then touched his throat, but neither the tube nor other signs of the operation were visible. His gestures were strong and he appeared in good form.
"Suddenly, I saw a flash and then his hand that was making a blessing," said Elena Marzullo, of Rome.
Young Catholics chanted "JP Two, we love you!" Among them was 4-year-old Rocco Casillo, who carried a heart-shaped drawing with the words, "Go for it, granddad Karol," using the pope's Polish first name.
The appearance was the clearest sign the pope has made strides since surgery. But how far and lasting a recovery remain central questions. The next official health update was expected Monday.
"It couldn't be better," the ANSA news agency quoted a papal physician, Dr. Rodolfo Proietti, as saying after the pope's appearance.
ANSA earlier reported the pope showed no signs of infection, citing unnamed medical sources. Doctors have advised the pope not to attempt to speak for several days. But on Saturday, John Paul exercised his voice with a few words, the newspaper Il Messaggero reported Sunday.
The Associated Press could not immediately confirm the reports.
Any step toward recovery, however, is complicated by the pope's battle with Parkinson's disease, a progressive disorder that causes tremors and limits muscle control. He also suffers from hip and knee ailments.
The combination of problems appeared too much and the Vatican announced the pope would not be part of the noontime Sunday blessing, or Angelus, for the first time in his papacy. The pope's will to continue was received with astonishment and joy by many faithful.
"His body is weak, but not his soul," said Spanish seminary student Juan Flores, who was leaving St. Peter's Square when told of the pope's appearance. He immediately began sending text messages to friends on his cellular phone.
In 1981, after being shot by a Turkish gunman, the pope found the strength to give the Angelus from his hospital room. After he had surgery to remove an intestinal tumor in 1992, the pope taped a message and prayer. Earlier this month, during a previous hospitalization for respiratory problems, the pontiff made a brief Sunday appearance.
"The Holy Father is not with us, but he is following us from Gemelli," Sandri said at St. Peter's just before the pope's appearance.
"And looking at Christ and following him with patient trust, we succeed in understanding that every human form of pain contains in itself a divine promise of salvation and joy," Sandri read from the pope's message. "I would like that this message of comfort and hope reaches everyone, especially those going through difficult moments, and who suffers in body and spirit."
One important decision facing the pope's doctors is how long to leave in the breathing tube. In some patients, the tube remains permanently.
Dr. Nicola Mercuri, a neurosurgeon at Rome's Tor Vergata University, told Associated Press Television News that the pope's speech will likely deteriorate as his Parkinson's disease advances.
"This tube will be a further complication and we really don't know if the speech will be understandable because it is going to render the tone of voice weaker than it was before," Mercuri said. "We expect a weaker voice. This is for sure."