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Alice RITCHIE, Alexandria SAGE

After pizza, prayer and baptisms, Pope set to leave hospital Saturday

Francis continues to travel internationally and keep a busy agenda.. ©AFP

Vatican City (AFP) - Pope Francis paid a surprise visit to children in a cancer ward on Friday, even baptising a baby, as he prepared to leave the hospital where he has been undergoing treatment for three days.

The 86-year-old pontiff was admitted to Rome's Gemelli hospital on Wednesday with what turned out to be a bronchitis infection, and has been treated with antibiotics. 

He is due to be discharged on Saturday, with the Vatican saying late Friday that his medical team had approved his release following tests earlier in the day. 

Before his departure, the Argentine pope left the 10th-floor private papal suite on Friday to visit the paediatric oncology ward, handing out chocolate Easter eggs and chatting with parents.

A video published by the Vatican showed him baptising a sleeping baby boy named Miguel Angel, who woke up and cried after Francis sprinkled him with Holy Water from a small silver receptacle. 

The pope, who the Vatican has said plans to preside over Palm Sunday services this weekend in Saint Peter's Square, has not been confined to his hospital bed.

On Thursday, he shared pizza with staff looking after him, and prayed at the papal suite's private chapel, according to spokesman Matteo Bruni.

Francis, who had part of one lung removed as a young man, has suffered increasing health issues in recent years.This was his second stay in hospital since 2021.

"His Holiness's return home to Santa Marta (his Vatican residence) is expected tomorrow, in the wake of the results of the latest tests this morning," Bruni said on Friday.

Eating and praying

Amid concerns over the pope's presence at events for Holy Week and Easter, the most important week in the Christian calendar, the Vatican confirmed he would preside over Palm Sunday mass.

This means the pope will stay seated while someone else -- probably a senior cardinal -- conducts the ceremony at the altar.

Francis' hospitalisation, just weeks after he marked 10 years as head of the worldwide Catholic Church, had sparked widespread concern.

He has repeatedly said he would consider stepping down if his health failed him, following the example of his predecessor, Benedict XVI.

In St Peter's Square on Friday, many expressed relief over the pope's improved condition, including Vatican guide Giuseppe, 43, who said the octogenarian pope had probably been "asking too much of himself" of late. 

"But he's a strong man and I think he's going to make it.He will be back very soon.It's good news because it's Easter time...An Easter without the pope presiding over the ceremony would be very sad," he said.

After initially saying Francis was hospitalised for pre-planned checks, the Vatican later revealed he had complained of breathing difficulties.

By Thursday morning he was well enough to eat, read the newspapers and do some work.

Resignation rumours

The Gemelli hospital is the favoured choice of popes to the point of being dubbed "Vatican 3" by pope John Paul II, who was treated nine times there for a total of 153 days.

A Jesuit who seems most happy being among his flock, Francis continues to travel internationally and keep a busy schedule.

But he has been forced to use a wheelchair and walking stick in the past year because of knee pain, and admitted last summer he needed to slow down.

He said on Thursday he was "touched by the many messages" he was receiving in hospital, thanking on Twitter those praying for his recovery.

Among the well-wishers was US President Joe Biden, only the second Catholic president in United States history, who tweeted on Thursday: "The world needs Pope Francis." 

Francis was admitted to the Gemelli for 10 days in July 2021 for a colon operation after suffering from a type of diverticulitis, an inflammation of pockets that develop in the lining of the intestine.

In an interview in January, the pope said the diverticulitis had returned.

His predecessor, Benedict XVI -- who died on December 31 aged 95 -- stunned the world in 2013 by becoming the first pope since the Middle Ages to resign, citing his declining physical and mental health.

Francis has said he would follow suit if he was unable to do his job but said last month the idea was not currently "on my agenda".

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