Pope Francis returned to the Vatican on Saturday morning after a three-day hospital stay during which he was treated for bronchitis, raising new concerns about the health of the aging pontiff, who had major surgery in 2021 and now often uses a cane or a wheelchair because of knee problems and sciatica.
Francis, 86, left the Policlinico A. Gemelli hospital in Rome around 10:30 a.m. He was admitted on Wednesday afternoon.
Before leaving the hospital grounds, Francis got out of the white Fiat 500 that would take him to the Vatican to thank journalists for their work and to greet well-wishers, who cheered and waved hello. He signed the cast of a boy who had broken his arm playing soccer, and he prayed with a couple whose daughter had just died.
Andrea Scaracia, 45, an engineer from the southern region of Apulia, was among those who were waiting for the pope outside the hospital.
“They discharged him and my daughter on the same day. I hope it’s a good sign for him and for her,” he said. “He is of course the Holy Father, and any Catholic wants to know that he is well, but for Italians, it’s a little more than that. He is our father, our grandfather for children. We want to know that he has recovered and is well.”
Francis, asked how he was feeling, replied, smiling, “Still alive, you know,” according to a video posted on Twitter by CNN’s Vatican correspondent.
He had never felt afraid, Francis told the journalists.
He also spoke of his visit to young oncology patients at the hospital. “It’s the best thing, when you’re a priest, being a priest, being a pastor,” he said. And he praised the work of the medical staff. “You have to be heroic” to work in a hospital, he said. “And you need tenderness.”
After leaving the hospital, Francis went to the Basilica of St. Mary Major, where he prayed before a venerated icon of the Virgin Mary, a Vatican spokesman, Matteo Bruni, said in a statement. Francis also “offered a prayer” for the children he had met in the oncology ward, the sick and “those who suffer because of illness or the loss of their loved ones,” the statement said.
Francis arrived at the Vatican a short time later, entering through a side entrance close to the Casa Santa Marta, the guesthouse where he has lived for the duration of his 10-year papacy.
Outside the Vatican walls, he again left the car to greet a group of people who were waiting. After getting back in, he waved over a television crew with the national broadcaster RAI.
“Thank you for everything,” he said, speaking through the car’s window. “Happy Easter, and pray for me.”
Francis was expected to be present on Sunday in St. Peter’s Square for the Palm Sunday Mass, but the Vatican did not say whether he would deliver the homily during the service, which will be officiated by Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, the vice dean of the College of Cardinals.
Francis said on Saturday that he would deliver the weekly Angelus prayer after the Mass. And the Vatican said that Francis would take part in all of the Holy Week celebrations, while different cardinals would celebrate at the altar.
John Cullinan, 60, an Irish tourist, was visiting St. Peter’s on Saturday with his wife, Margaret, and said he was happy that the pope’s health had improved. “He is well,” Mr. Cullinan said. “Having the Easter celebration without him was hard to imagine.”
It was the pope’s second stay at Gemelli, where John Paul II also received treatment during his pontificate. In 2021, part of Francis’ colon was removed as a result of a bowel inflammation called diverticulitis. This year, in an interview with The Associated Press, he said that the diverticulitis had returned.
But apart from recurrent episodes of sciatica and problems with his right knee that have forced the cancellation of events and even trips, the pope’s health has not given much cause for alarm.
Francis himself has been more forthcoming about his mortality, even as the Vatican remains mostly tight-lipped about papal health issues.
Speaking to reporters on a papal plane in 2014, he said, “I know this will last a short time, two or three years, and then to the house of the Father,” while in 2015, he said he saw himself serving as pope for about another five years.
He has also said that he would consider resigning, as his predecessor Benedict XVI did in 2013, if failing health made it impossible for him to run the Roman Catholic Church. But he has also made clear that he views the pontificate as a lifelong mission.
“I believe that the pope’s ministry is ad vitam,” he told a group of Jesuits in the Democratic Republic of Congo in February, using the term “for life” in Latin. “I see no reason why it should not be so.” He added that retirement was, for the moment, not on his “agenda.”
On Saturday, the pope appeared to be in good spirits.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” Francis said to reporters outside the hospital. “Rest up, and thank you.”