ROME – Pope Francis left the hospital on Saturday after a three-night stay for treatment of bronchitis, stopping to say a good-natured hello and joke that he was “still alive.”
The 86-year-old pontiff, who was admitted to the Gemelli hospital in Rome on Wednesday with breathing difficulties, got out of the car being carried and smiled and joked with the crowd.
When someone asked him how he felt, he said twice with a big smile “I’m still alive!”
As the crowds gathered, Francis went to the Vatican to begin preparations for Holy Week and Easter, the most important week in the Christian calendar.
The pontiff felt ill on Wednesday after a general audience in St Peter’s Square, but his condition improved after he was given antibiotics.
On Friday, the Pope visited the children’s cancer ward at the hospital, handing out chocolate Easter eggs and even baptizing a week-old baby, according to a video published by the Vatican.
Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said Francis was working earlier Friday in the papal private room of the hospital on the 10th floor and catching up on newspapers. On Thursday night, he ate pizza with some hospital staff.
The Argentine Pope confirmed on Saturday that he will preside at Palm Sunday Mass in St. Peter’s Square, the start of a busy week of events leading up to Easter.
Francis’ hospital was his second since 2021, when he underwent colon surgery, also at Gemelli.
His mounting health problems over the past year have sparked widespread concern, including speculation that he may opt to retire rather than remain in the job for life.
‘I was afraid’
His predecessor, Benedict XVI, retired in 2013, in a radical step not seen since the Middle Ages.
Visitors to St Peter’s Square expressed relief at his recovery on Friday.
“I was afraid of the Pope,” said one 56-year-old Italian tourist who gave his name as Davide.
“But I’m happy that he’s better, that he’s coming back. For believers and the Catholic community, it is important,” he said.
Francis marked 10 years as head of the Catholic Church worldwide earlier this month.
He has tackled major governance reforms and tried to create a more open and lenient Church, although he faced internal opposition, especially from conservatives.
Leading the masses
He has repeatedly said he would consider quitting if his health improved – but last month he said he has no plans to quit.
During the Palm Sunday Mass, Francis is expected to remain seated while another cleric – probably a senior friend – conducts the ceremony at the altar.
The Vatican, citing medical staff, said on Thursday that Francis had been diagnosed with “infectious bronchitis” that required antibiotics, and that the treatment had resulted in a “significant improvement in his health”.
The Gemelli hospital has been the favorite of pontiffs until Pope John Paul II called it “Vatican 3”, who was treated nine times by Gemelli and spent a total of 153 days there.
A Jesuit who seems most content to be among his flock, Francis continues to travel internationally and maintain a busy schedule.
But knee pain has forced him to use a wheelchair and a walking stick for the past year, and he admitted last summer that he had to slow down.
He said Thursday that he was “touched by the many messages” he was receiving at the hospital, thanking those who were praying for his recovery on Twitter.
Francis’ earlier stay at Gemelli in July 2021 lasted 10 days. He was admitted after suffering a form of diverticulitis, inflammation of pockets that develop in the lining of the intestine, which required surgery.
In an interview in January, the Pope said that the diverticulitis was back.