ROME – A chipper-sounding Pope Francis was discharged Saturday from the Rome hospital where he was treated for bronchitis, quipping to journalists before being driven away that he's “still alive.”
Francis, 86, was hospitalized at Gemelli Polyclinic on Wednesday following his weekly public audience in St. Peter's Square after reportedly experiencing breathing difficulties. The pontiff received antibiotics administered intravenously during his stay, the Vatican said.
In a sign of his improved health, the Vatican released details of Francis' Holy Week schedule. It said he would preside at this weekend's Palm Sunday Mass and at Easter Mass on April 9, both held in St. Peter's Square and expected to draw tens of thousands of faithful. A Vatican cardinal will be at the altar to celebrate both Masses, a recent practice due to the pontiff having a troublesome knee issue.
But Francis is scheduled to celebrate Holy Thursday Mass, which this year will be held in a juvenile prison in Rome. Still unclear was whether he would attend the late-night, torch-lit Way of the Cross procession at Rome's Colosseum to mark Good Friday.
Before departing Gemelli Polyclinic late Saturday morning, Francis comforted a Rome couple whose 5-year-old daughter died Friday night at the Catholic hospital. Outside, Serena Subania, mother of Angelica, sobbed as she pressed her head into the chest of the pope, who held her close and whispered words of comfort.
Francis seemed eager to linger with well-wishers. When a boy showed him his arm cast, the pope made a gesture as if to ask “Do you have a pen?” Three papal aides whipped out theirs. Francis took one of the pens and added his signature to the child's already well-autographed cast.
The pontiff answered in a low voice that was close to a whisper when reporters peppered him with questions, indicating he had felt unwell — “I felt sick," he said, pointing to his mid-section — a symptom that convinced his medical staff to take him to the hospital Wednesday.
Asked how he felt now, Francis joked, “Still alive, you know.” He gave a thumbs-up sign.
Francis exited the hospital from a side entrance, but his car stopped in front of the main entrance, where a gaggle of journalists waited. He opened the car door himself and got out from the front passenger seat. Francis had a cane ready to lean on.
After chatting, he got back into the white Fiat 500 car that drove him away from Gemelli Polyclinic. But instead of heading straight home, his motorcade sped right past Vatican City and went to St. Mary Major Basilica, a Rome landmark that is one of his favorites.
There, startled tourists rushed to snap photos of him as he sat in a wheelchair, which he has used often to navigate longer distances in recent years due to a chronic knee problem. When he emerged after praying, residents and tourists in the street called out repeatedly, “Long live the pope!” and clapped.
Francis spent 10 days at the same hospital in July 2021 following intestinal surgery for a bowel narrowing, After his release back then, he also stopped to offer prayers of thanksgiving at St. Mary Major Basilica, which is home to an icon depicting the Virgin Mary. He also visits the church upon returning from trips abroad.
Before leaving the hospital Saturday, Francis, while chatting with journalists, praised medical workers, saying they "show great tenderness."
“We sick are capricious. I much admire the people who work in hospitals,” he said. Francis also said he read journalists' accounts of his illness, including in a Rome daily newspaper, and pronounced them well done.
Francis stopped to talk to reporters again before he was driven into the Vatican through a gate of the tiny walled city-state, where he lives at a Holy See hotel. Speaking through an open car window, he said: “Happy Easter to all, and pray for me.''
Then, indicating he was eager to resume his routine, he said, “Forward, thanks.”
In response to a shouted question from a reporter, who asked if the pope would visit Hungary at the end of April as scheduled, Francis answered , “Yes.”
On yet another stop, he got out of his car to distribute chocolate Easter eggs to the police officers who drove the motorcycles at the head of his motorcade.
Given his strained voice, it was unclear if the pope would read the homily at the Palm Sunday service or deliver the usually lengthy “Urbi et Orbi” (Latin for to the city and to the world) address, a review of the globe's conflicts, at the end of Easter Mass.
He told reporters that after Palm Sunday Mass, he would keep his weekly appointment to greet and bless the public in St. Peter's Square.
As a young man in his native Argentina, Francis had part of a lung removed, leaving him particularly vulnerable to any respiratory illness.
Gregorio Borgia contributed reporting.