Pope John Paul II has not presided over Ash Wednesday services at the Vatican for the first time in his 26-year papacy.

American Cardinal James Stafford presided at Wednesday's liturgy in the name of the 84-year old pontiff, who was rushed to the hospital last week due to breathing difficulties brought on by the flu. Vatican officials say the pope's health is improving. He remains at Rome's Gemelli hospital.

The Polish-born pontiff has long struggled with Parkinson's disease and other ailments.

Some information for this report provided by AP and Reuters.