Pope John Paul II underwent a 30-minute operation Thursday to insert a tube in his throat to relieve his breathing problems. The tracheotomy was performed hours after he was rushed back to the hospital for the second time in a month suffering from flu-like symptoms.
Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said the operation was a success and that the Pope had approved the procedure.
The frail, 84-year-old pontiff, who was taken to the hospital shortly before 11 a.m. in an ambulance, will be spending the night in the hospital, the spokesman said.
But the tracheotomy may require a longer hospital stay and have serious consequences for the pope's abilities to carry out his duties since he will not be able to speak while the breathing tube is in his throat.
Outside medical experts said John Paul may have pneumonia. The Vatican declined to respond to such speculation, saying only that the pope suffered from a "syndrome of influenza."
The pope's sudden turn for the worse alarmed the faithful from Nigeria to the Philippines to St. Peter's Square, and raised more doubts about his ability to carry on.
"We have prayed for the pope to live as long as possible so we can still share our joy with him," said Zofia Gebala, a 73-year-old retiree, as she left a church in Wadowice, the pope's birthplace in southern Poland. "We are praying for him every day, for his well-being. But it's all in God's hands now."
John Paul, who suffers from Parkinson's disease, had greeted pilgrims twice at the window of his studio at St. Peter's Square since his release from Gemelli Polyclinic Hospital on Feb. 10. On Wednesday, he made his longest public appearance -- 30 minutes -- since he fell ill more than three weeks ago.
With each successive appearance, he seemed a little stronger, a little more alert, and his voice rang out with greater clarity.
That made Thursday's reversal all the more shocking for the faithful.
"We are so scared because he has been sick in the past," said Vanessa Animo Bono, 32, a Roman Catholic being treated at Gemelli. "He is one of the few popes who is actually able to listen to people."
Earlier Thursday, Vatican officials said the pope was suffering breathing problems similar to those that sent him to Gemelli on February 1, and Italian news reports said the latest respiratory crisis was more severe than the first.