KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
ROME -- Pope John Paul II underwent an operation Thursday to insert a tube in his throat to help him breathe after he was rushed to the hospital with flu symptoms.
The Vatican said in a statement that the 30-minute tracheotomy was a success, adding: "The Holy Father is fine and will spend the night in his regular hospital room."
The statement said the procedure was "elective," suggesting that it wasn't an emergency measure.
Papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said the pope started Wednesday showing signs of the same illness he suffered earlier this month.
"The flu that led to his hospitalization had some complications, including some episodes of difficulty in breathing," the Vatican statement said. The pope had been in the hospital Feb. 1-10.
The relapse appeared to have happened quickly.
On Wednesday, the pope made his longest public appearance, 30 minutes, since he became ill three weeks ago and was hospitalized at Rome's Gemelli Polyclinic.
On Thursday, he was scheduled to attend a meeting on new candidates for sainthood, but instead he returned to the hospital.
The pope has two full-time personal physicians and specialists who see and treat him at the Vatican. Details of his care are kept secret, but it's widely assumed that the Vatican doesn't have the high-tech equipment of a hospital.
Gemelli, one of the region's best hospitals, keeps a suite of rooms open for the pope, who also suffers from Parkinson's disease.
Gianni Letta, spokesman for Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, visited the pope after the surgery and found him in good spirits. He said the pope gestured with his hand, his most common gesture, "as if to say I'm still going to reproach you."
"He even spoke: He said, 'These doctors ...,' but the doctors told him not to speak," Letta said. "I was very worried when I arrived here, but I am at ease now."
Vatican watchers said there was concern among church leaders because the pope was hospitalized so suddenly.
"The cardinals had no idea anything was wrong, and all of a sudden he was in the hospital," said biographer Andreas Englisch, the author of "The Secret of Karol Wojtyla: John Paul II." He added that he saw the pope earlier in the week and said he "looked surprisingly healthy, quite OK."
John Paul II is the third longest-serving pope in church history. His term began in 1978. He has visited more than 100 countries, traveling the equivalent of 27 times around the globe.
His latest book, "Memory and Identity," was released Wednesday. It attacks homosexuality and abortion and has been harshly criticized by a German Jewish leader for comparing abortion to the Holocaust. The church denied that the comparison was meant literally, saying the pope was merely stating that evil exists in the world. The book also mentions the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, saying terrorists are "a constant threat for the life of millions of innocents."
There have been whispers about when the time might come for the pope to consider retirement for the good of the church. He has said that God will determine when it's time for him to leave office.
Article 332 of church law allows a pope to retire. But no pope has done so since 1415, when Gregory XII stepped down to reunite a divided church.