VATICAN CITY, MARCH 13, 2005 ( John Paul II returned to the Vatican from the hospital as thousands in Rome cheered him on.

The Pope crossed himself just before he left the Gemelli Polyclinic in a minivan. He waved through a partially open window at the thousands of Romans and tourists who lined the route between the hospital and the Vatican.

The Holy Father had been hospitalized since undergoing a Feb. 24 tracheotomy to ease his breathing problems.

Earlier today, Joaquín Navarro Valls, director of the Vatican press office, announced: "The Holy Father, according to the doctors taking care of him, will return this afternoon to the Vatican, where he will continue his convalescence."

The Holy Father appeared at his hospital window around midday and briefly greeted the pilgrims gathered outside.

"Dear brothers and sisters, thank you for your visit," the Pope said, seated in an armchair, with a clear voice.

He greeted a group of 50 pilgrims from Wadowice, Poland, who traveled to Rome with their mayor, Ewa Filipiak, to bring to him traditional Polish products and an album of photographs of his native city.

The Pope also greeted a group of 400 priests and seminarians of the Legion of Christ.

Have "a happy Sunday and a good week," he said, and opened his arms toward the pilgrims.

John Paul II's voice was stronger and clearer than it was on Friday, as recorded by the Vatican Television Center.

Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Vatican secretary of state, and Lorenzo Ornaghi, rector of the University of the Sacred Heart, accompanied John Paul II in his hospital room today.

At the Vatican at midday, Archbishop Leonardo Sandri, substitute of the Vatican Secretariat of State, read to the faithful gathered in St. Peter's Square the brief message that the Holy Father wrote for the occasion. He led the prayer and blessed the crowd on behalf of the Pontiff.

The Holy Father thanked media professionals for their "appreciated service," which enables the faithful "in all parts of the world" to "feel me closer and support me with affection and prayer," and highlighted the importance of radio, television and the Internet for evangelization.

The papal message concluded with an invitation to young people to attend, next week, the solemn liturgy of Palm Sunday, in preparation for World Youth Day in August.