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Pope John Paul II Could be Released from the Hospital Friday

For the first time in more than a quarter century, Pope John Paul II missed the Vatican's Ash Wednesday prayer service. The Pope has been in the hospital for more than a week after he was taken there for treatment for acute breathing problems caused by the flu.

Meanwhile, a Vatican spokesman (Joaquin Navarro-Valls) says he expects to issue a bulletin on the Pope's health Thursday and expressed hope it will be the final one of his current hospitalization. The Italian news agency ANSA quotes medical officials as saying the Pope could be released Friday, depending on medical tests. Brian Purchia reports

There was someone missing on Ash Wednesday mass at the Vatican. Pope John Paul II. He has been in the hospital for more than a week, so American Cardinal James Stafford presided over the service.

Vatican Analyst Father John Wauck says the pontiff's absence is not altogether surprising because of his deteriorating health. "People have become accustomed to the Pope's absence at major ceremonies in the last few years," he said.

Some catholic scholars like Father Andrew Greeley have begun to question whether John Paul II can continue to effectively lead the Catholic Church.

Father Andrew Greeley says, "It's awfully hard to administer a church when you're in your mid-80s with Parkinson disease and a bad back and a stomach that's been shot away -- its tougher to do."

The Pope tried to reassure people on Sunday -- when he briefly appeared at his hospital window -- and spoke a few words.

While it's obvious that the Pope cannot physically do a lot of the things he used to, Pope John Paul II scholar Monsignor William Kerr says the Pope is still in charge.

Monsignor William A. Kerr says, "Nothing of great significance or import for the Church happens without his understand [ing] and his sort of becoming a part of."

The Church maintains that the Pope's health continues to improve. Cardinal Camillo Ruini visited the Pope on Wednesday. "I've just seen the Holy Father and I found him to be really well," he said.

But the Vatican is traditionally secretive about medical matters.

"There's sort of a holdover in the past where you never believe what the Vatican says about the Pope's health," says Father Andrew Greeley.

Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the number two person at the Vatican increased speculation about the Pope's future when he said it should be left up to the Pope's conscience whether or not he should resign.

But, it's considered very unlikely that the Pope will retire -- the last time this happened was more than 500 years ago.

Vatican Analyst Wilton Winn says, "He really believes he was chosen by the Holy Spirit for this position, and if the Holy Spirit chooses you it's not like being chairman of the board of a company or something, you don't resign just because of a problem."

If the Pope were to pass away a conclave would be convened, which would bring cardinals from all over the catholic world to select the new Pope.

"Now the question is will this be an African Pope, will this Pope be from Latin America, where will the next pope come from -- that's the question..."