VATICAN CITY -- Pope John Paul II was released from the hospital and returned to his apartment overlooking St. Peter's Square yesterday after reassuring the world's Roman Catholic faithful in his raspy voice that he is on the mend.
A gray Mercedes minivan carried the frail, 84-year-old pontiff back to the Vatican, 2½ weeks after he was rushed by ambulance to Gemelli Polyclinic hospital in Rome and had surgery to insert a breathing tube in his windpipe.
Cries of ''Viva il Papa!" (''Long live the pope") went up outside the hospital as John Paul crossed himself and the van pulled away. He waved and blessed the thousands of cheering Romans and tourists who lined the route, and his motorcade passed beneath the Arch of the Bells and disappeared inside the Vatican.
John Paul left Gemelli a few hours after his first live public address since the Feb. 24 operation, managing a few scripted words in a hoarse voice from a window to a crowd gathered beneath his 10th-floor hospital suite.
''Dear brothers and sisters, thank you for your visit. To everyone, have a good Sunday and a good week," he said, reading from a sheet of paper and singling out faithful from his hometown of Wadowice, Poland, for a special greeting.
Minutes later, the Vatican announced the pope's discharge from the hospital. But its brief statement made clear that the pope was not cured, merely well enough to continue his convalescence back at the Holy See. It said John Paul was leaving Gemelli ''in agreement with the attending physicians."
The pope, whose recovery and speech abilities have been hampered by Parkinson's disease, has been getting breathing and speech therapy since his tracheotomy. His spokesman said last week that nothing was being done for John Paul at the hospital that could not be handled in his apartment.
The pope spent 10 days at Gemelli for an earlier bout of breathing trouble and was released Feb. 10, only to be rushed back two weeks later.
His return to the Vatican triggered questions among those wondering if he would fully recover or wind up back in the hospital. ''We are praying, all the people," said Sister Felicia, a nun at the Vatican. ''The world is praying."
Although John Paul was released in plenty of time for Holy Week, which begins next weekend with Palm Sunday and culminates a week later with Easter, the Vatican says his only commitment so far is giving his traditional blessings on Easter Sunday.
Pilgrims standing vigil at Gemelli and St. Peter's Square wept, cheered, and snapped photos as the pope made his way back to the Vatican.