VATICAN CITY (AP) Pope John Paul II was rushed to the hospital Thursday after suffering a relapse of the flu, the Vatican announced, a day after the pontiff made his longest public appearance since being discharged from the clinic two weeks ago. The 84-year-old pontiff was taken to Gemelli Polyclinic hospital after the return of flu symptoms Wednesday afternoon. He was hospitalized for "necessary specialized assistance and further tests," papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said. The Vatican said the pope was taken to the clinic by ambulance at 10:45 a.m. The Vatican played down the seriousness of the hospitalization, saying a patient of the pope's age is always at risk from the flu. Rome has been particularly cold, wet and windy in recent days. The pope has twice appeared at his open studio window to address crowds in St. Peter's Square since his discharge from the hospital Feb. 10. But the pope failed to show up Thursday morning for a scheduled meeting on new candidates for sainthood. No explanation was given for his absence and the ceremony went ahead, presided by the Vatican's No. 2 official, Cardinal Angelo Sodano. The pope had been convalescing after his hospitalization but had appeared to be making a rebound. At each new public appearance, he appeared stronger, more alert, and his voice was clearer. On Wednesday, the pope wheezed and looked gaunt but managed to make his longest public appearance since leaving the hospital. The Vatican originally had planned for the frail pontiff to address pilgrims in St. Peter's Square from his apartment window, but decided instead on a video hookup because of the rain and winds. The change was in line with the caution the Vatican has been showing since John Paul was rushed to the hospital Feb. 1 with breathing difficulties following a bout with the flu. In all, the pope followed the audience for 30 minutes the most he has appeared in public since returning to the Vatican on Feb. 10. Fully alert, he waved and gave his blessing at the end. When John Paul was discharged from the hospital, the Vatican made clear he would decide on his schedule in consultation with his doctors. He has Parkinson's disease, and crippling knee and hip ailments. Because of his ailments, there has long been speculation that John Paul might consider resigning. That debate was fueled during his hospitalization when Cardinal Sodano declined to rule out that possibility, saying it was up to the pope's "conscience."
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