Pope John Paul II will remain hospitalized a few more days as a precaution, the Vatican said Monday, and the Holy See's No. 2 official for the first time publicly addressed the issue of a possible papal resignation.
Papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said the 84-year-old pope, who he said was continuing to improve, had no fever, was eating regularly and has been sitting in a chair every day for several hours.
"His doctors have advised him to stay a few more days," Navarro-Valls said, declining to set a date for the pope's release.
Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano, asked by a reporter Monday whether the pope has thought about resigning, responded: "Let's leave this hypothesis up to the pope's conscience."
"If there is a man who loves the church more than anybody else, who is guided by the Holy Spirit, if there's a man who has marvelous wisdom, that's him. We must have great faith in the pope. He knows what to do," said Sodano, the Vatican's No. 2 official.
Vatican observers said that since Sodano had not closed the door on the issue and had responded to the question, it could mean top church officials were discussing such a possible scenario. Popes can resign but cannot be forced to do so.
A few minutes earlier, however, Sodano spoke of John Paul's longevity in remarks dedicating a new Vatican bookstore.
"Pius IX was pope for 32 years. Let's pray that John Paul passes this mark," Sodano said, referring to the pontiff ahead of John Paul on the list of longest-serving popes.
"Let's pray in this moment for a long life and for serenity for the Holy Father," he said. "Let's pray that Holy Spirit Consoler is at his side. The affection of the children of the church is the best medicine for him."
The pope has been reading the newspapers, and Navarro-Valls quoted John Paul as saying he was doing so "just to follow in the papers the evolution of my health."
John Paul's 10-minute appearance at an open window Sunday gave the public its first glimpse of the pontiff since his hospitalization nearly a week ago for breathing problems and the flu rekindled questions about his ability to carry on.
The Vatican said the next medical bulletin would be issued Thursday.
The pope, who has Parkinson's disease and hip and knee ailments, was rushed to Rome's Gemelli Polyclinic on Feb. 1. Vatican officials last week suggested his hospitalization might last about a week.
Asked if the pope would attend a previously scheduled service dedicated to the World Day of the Sick on Friday, Navarro-Valls said: "I can neither exclude nor confirm. It is the doctors who have the say. They are the ones who advised that the pope stay another few days."
Navarro-Valls said the pope has received "hundreds, maybe even thousands" of get-well messages from other patients at the hospital, as well as from people elsewhere in Italy and around the world.
"Some of them are very moving, from people who open their hearts and lives to the pope," he said. "Many people confide their sufferings to the pope."
Among those who wrote to John Paul was a mother who sent a letter accompanied by a photo of her son, who she said was hospitalized at Gemelli's pediatric cancer ward near the pope's suite for treatment of an abdominal tumor, Navarro-Valls said.
The pope reads some of the messages and "keeps everyone in his prayers," he said.
John Paul concelebrates Mass every day in his room and has asked those who are caring for him to join him, Navarro-Valls added.
An Italian prisoner with a police escort visited the hospital Monday and left John Paul with two gifts made by fellow inmates: a harp crafted out of matchsticks and a wooden shoe.
On Sunday, the pope looked rested and alert in his hospital window as he gave the world its first glimpse of him since his hospitalization. Although he spoke with difficulty, a message read for him by an Argentine archbishop standing beside him seemed to respond to any doubts about the pope's readiness to continue leading the Roman Catholic 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 whole of humanity," the message said.
John Paul has been cutting back on his schedule in recent years and turning more of his speeches to aides to be read because of his difficulty speaking due to Parkinson's. But until he came down with the flu a week ago, he has been in good form and recently confirmed he would visit Germany in August for a church youth festival.
The latest illness led him to cancel his first audiences in 16 months, and the list of missed appearances is growing.
Sodano will meet with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Tuesday, and American Cardinal James Stafford will lead an Ash Wednesday prayer service in the pope's place.