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Last Updated: Sunday, 6 February, 2005, 21:55 GMT
Heartfelt emotion as Pope appears
By Katya Adler
BBC News, Rome

Well-wishers stand outside the Pope's hospital
Crowds of well-wishers have been waiting for news
Hospital patients, nuns, priests and pilgrims craned their necks and clasped their hands in prayer as they gathered under Pope John Paul II's window at Rome's Gemelli clinic on Sunday.

"I so hope we get to see him," said Fabio, a lorry driver from Milan. "I drove down here especially - I just want to see for myself that he's okay."

The Pope's health has been front-page news in Italy since he was taken to hospital with heavy flu and breathing difficulties on Tuesday night.

And while the Vatican remained determinedly upbeat, speaking on a daily basis of "improvement" and "satisfactory medical tests", here and all over the world, people watched and waited anxiously for a sign of life from the Pope himself.

"We don't trust Vatican spokespeople," one of a group of around 40 Spanish teenagers told me, as they arrived at Gemelli. "How do we know what they say is true?

"We wrote a prayer for him on the coach journey to Italy. We hope he'll come to his window today to hear it."

Ever since the Vatican announced that the Pope would be well enough to pronounce a blessing from the hospital, speculation has been rife as to whether he would be seen as well as heard.

"I'm telling you, I saw a nurse cleaning the windows of the Pope's apartment late on Saturday," I overheard one of the many policemen milling around Gemelli hospital's cafe say to his colleague.

"Why would she do that if he wasn't going to appear?"

"Don't be ridiculous," said his colleague. "The doctors would never let him near a window in this freezing weather. That's what gave him the flu in the first place."

Sudden appearance

The Angelus prayer begins every Sunday at midday and as the time drew closer and the crowd grew bigger, the tension mounted at Gemelli hospital.

And thousands gathered in St Peter's Square where the Pope traditionally says the blessing from his window in the Vatican.

Technicians had mounted megaphones and four giant screens there, so people would be able to follow the events as they unfolded at the hospital.

How wonderful to be blessed by the Pope when I am here in hospital
Anna Simeone, hospital patient
Then all of a sudden there he was at the hospital window, dressed in his usual white cassock.

Spontaneous applause broke out at Gemelli and in St Peter's Square.

"Viva el Papa!" shrieked the excited Spanish teenagers from Toledo. Two Philippine nuns standing near me burst into tears.

As he waved slowly to the crowds, Archbishop Leonardo Sandri, the Vatican's Deputy Secretary of State, read out a message from the Pope, thanking the world for the great concern shown for his health and reassuring all Catholics that he was still "serving the Church and all humanity" from his sick bed.

Pope John Paul II then gave his blessing in a slurred and hoarse voice and made the sign of the cross.

And as quickly as he had appeared, he then vanished. Wheeled away from the window.

Heartfelt joy

The reaction from those watching was as heartfelt as it was mixed.

"I was determined to see him. I asked the doctor to give me permission to come out. How wonderful to be blessed by the Pope when I am here in hospital," said Anna Simeone, a middle-aged Italian housewife who has been in hospital for 10 days.

Pope John Paul II,  31 January 2005
1920: Born Karol Wojtyla near Krakow, Poland
1946: Ordained a priest
1964: Appointed Archbishop of Krakow
1978: Elected Pope and takes name of John Paul II
"I couldn't see him properly, but it was enough to know he was there and to hear his voice," said Erzilia, a devout Italian student, just after the blessing.

Civita, a mother who brought her children to see the Pontiff, had tears in her eyes. "I saw his hand. It was beautiful," she said.

But Claudio, a curious onlooker, rather than religious follower, was cynical:

"It's a show, just a show," he said. "The Vatican wants to stop the rumours that the Pope is dying or no longer in control.

"So a sick man is brought to a window for a couple of minutes, mumbles a couple of unintelligible words and everyone goes crazy with joy.

"Look around you. For me, it just goes to prove something I've been saying for a long time - that Popes should retire while they're still going strong. When they make headlines by doing their job, not by constantly being in hospital."

In St Peter's Square groups of pilgrims burst into song after the Pope's appearance.

"This is all really moving," said Judith, a tourist from Ireland. "I was watching people's faces as they were watching the Pope on the giant screens here in the square. It was incredible to see the love and the joy and the warmth he obviously makes them all feel."

There was great emotion too - if of a rather cynical nature - among the hundreds of journalists at Gemelli hospital.

"News at last," said a French television correspondent, with evident satisfaction. "We've all been camped out here since Tuesday, with the world watching and nothing to report.

Doctors have been told to keep silent and the medical updates from the Vatican have been glossy and scarce. Now we can spend hours, even days, analysing the Pope's brief appearance.


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