Pope Francis's health is improving and he is working from hospital, the Vatican said Thursday, a day after the 86-year-old was admitted with breathing issues.

The pope "rested well during the night. His clinical picture is gradually improving and he is continuing his planned treatment. This morning after breakfast, he read some newspapers and resumed work," spokesman Matteo Bruni said in a statement. 

His admission to hospital on Wednesday -- for what the Vatican initially said were pre-planned tests -- sparked widespread alarm, particularly after unconfirmed reports that he arrived in an ambulance.

But hospital sources cited by the Ansa news agency on Thursday said those treating the Argentine pontiff were "very optimistic".

Francis was forced to cancel Thursday's engagements, and there are now questions over his presence at services for the upcoming Holy Week and Easter, Christianity's most important holiday.

Ansa reported, however, that barring any new developments, he should be able to preside over this weekend's Palm Sunday celebrations.

- 'Always the fear' -

After first issuing a one-line statement announcing his admission for health checks, the Vatican late Wednesday said the pope had a respiratory infection that would require hospital treatment for "a few days", adding that Covid had been excluded.

Over the past year Francis has suffered from chronic knee pain that has required him to use a wheelchair.

His postponement last year of a scheduled trip to Africa and various events at home fuelled intense speculation about his health. In a July 2022 interview he acknowledged he needed to slow down.

At his weekly audience at the Vatican on Wednesday morning, just hours before his admission to hospital, the pope appeared in good spirits, smiling as he greeted the faithful from his "popemobile".

But he was pictured wincing as he was helped getting onto the vehicle -- a photo that made all the major front pages of Italy's newspapers on Thursday.

News of the pope's hospitalisation made global headlines and sparked prayers among many of the estimated 1.3 billion Catholics worldwide -- including US President Joe Biden.

Biden, only the second Catholic president in US history, urged attendees at a White House reception to "say an extra prayer" for the pontiff.

His health was also on the minds of visitors to the Vatican on Thursday. 

"There is always the fear, and yet it seems that everything is calm for now," said Tina Montalbano, a 60-year-old tourist guide.

"I hope he recovers very soon and can celebrate the Easter period here in St Peter's."

Francis was admitted in July 2021 to the same Rome hospital for 10 days for an operation on his colon 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.

In 1957, at age 21, Francis had part of one of his lungs removed, but he has said he made a full recovery.

- Resignation rumours -

Francis has repeatedly said he would consider stepping down if his health required it, following the example of his predecessor Benedict XVI.

German theologian Benedict, who died on December 31, shocked the world in 2013 by becoming the first pope since the Middle Ages to resign.

Francis has cautioned, however, that papal resignations should not be the norm, and said in an interview last month that the idea was currently not "on my agenda". 

Despite his health issues and advancing age, Francis -- a Jesuit who seems most happy being among his flock -- continues to travel internationally. 

Earlier this year, he visited South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, drawing huge crowds. 

Next month, he is due to visit Hungary and meet Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

In the past decade, Francis has sought to forge an image of a more open, compassionate Church, although has faced internal opposition, particularly from conservatives.


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