VATICAN CITY -- Pope John Paul II blessed the faithful from his hospital window yesterday, looking frail and speaking with difficulty but determined to show he can still lead the Roman Catholic Church.
The 10-minute appearance at an open window gave the public its first glimpse of the 84-year-old pontiff since his hospitalization, which rekindled questions about his ability to carry on.
He looked rested and alert, and a message read for him by an Argentine archbishop standing beside him seemed designed to quell doubts about the pope's readiness and ability to lead the Church.
"In this hospital, in the middle of other sick people to whom my affectionate thoughts go out, I can continue to serve the Church and the entire humanity," the message said.
As well-wishers, many with tears in their eyes, gazed up at his 10th-floor window, John Paul gave his usual brief blessing. But his words, delivered in a gravelly voice, were barely understandable.
"I think it's very touching because the Holy Father is not doing well, and seeing his will to appear is moving," said Daniela Sgro, a 25-year-old Italian.
"John Paul is a different pope," said Pilar Vizcaya, visiting Rome from Mexico. "He's very humane and has a big heart. Let's hope we can see him again in good health soon."
The pope, who has Parkinson's disease and hip and knee ailments, was rushed to Gemelli Polyclinic in Rome on Tuesday with breathing trouble brought on by the flu. The Vatican has said that he is steadily improving and that the next medical bulletin would be issued today.
Under heavy police security and with television cameras broadcasting the images around the world, John Paul was seated by the window wearing his white robes, a small bandage on his right wrist, and a reddish mark on his chin.
No date for his release has been given, but the pope's spokesman has suggested that the hospital stay would last a week.
A few miles from the hospital, where several thousand people gathered on St. Peter's Square to see the pope on four huge video screens, cheers went up as his image appeared. When the pope is well, he gives his weekly blessing from a Vatican window overlooking the square.
"To all and each of you, I assure you of my gratitude, which is translated into a constant invocation of the Lord according to your intentions [and] for the needs of the church and the great issues of the world," the pope said in the remarks read in Italian by Archbishop Leonardo Sandri. "May the expression of my gratitude for the sincere and heartfelt affection reach all of you, dear brothers and sisters, and to all those in every part of the world who are close to me, something which during these days I felt in a particularly intense way."
The message contained a new condemnation of abortion, urging people to "trust in the life that children who are not yet born silently cry out for."
The pope has been cutting back on his schedule in recent years. Aides are reading more of his speeches because Parkinson's makes it difficult for the pope to speak. But until he came down with the flu a week ago, he had been in good form and recently confirmed that he would visit Germany in August for a youth festival.
The latest illness led him to cancel his first audiences in 16 months, and the list of missed appearances is growing.
Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Holy See's number two official, will meet with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice tomorrow. Cardinal James F. Stafford of the United States will lead an Ash Wednesday prayer service in place of the pope.
Hospital workers watched as the pope sat quietly while the message was read. He then gave his blessing and thanked those who had prayed for his recovery. Outside, pilgrims shouted, "Viva il Papa" ("Long live the pope!")
Domenico Neri, an Italian patient, came out in his pajamas for the papal blessing. "I was very moved," said Neri, who was hospitalized for high blood pressure shortly before the pope was admitted. "I feel so sorry for him. He's an old person with so much responsibility on his shoulders."