ROME, Italy- A jovial Pope Francis joked with well-wishers on Saturday as he left hospital after a three-night stay for bronchitis, and headed back to the Vatican to prepare for Christianity's most important week.
The 86-year-old pontiff, who was admitted to Rome's Gemelli hospital on Wednesday with breathing difficulties, got out of the car transporting him and smiled and joked with the crowd.
Asked by someone how he felt, he quipped twice with a big smile "I am still alive!"
Francis will now begin preparations for Holy Week and Easter, the most important week in the Christian calendar.
The pontiff felt unwell Wednesday after a general audience in St Peter's Square, but his condition improved after he was given antibiotics.
On Friday, the pope visited the children's cancer ward at the hospital, handing out chocolate Easter eggs and baptising a weeks-old baby boy.
As he left on Saturday, he reached out to bless sick people, and stopped to hug and pray with distraught parents whose young daughter had just died.
The Argentine pope confirmed on Saturday he will preside over Palm Sunday mass in St Peter's Square, the start of a busy week of events leading up to Easter.
- 'Not scared' -
Francis' hospitalisation was his second since 2021, when he underwent colon surgery, also at Gemelli.
His increasing health issues over the past year have sparked widespread concern, including speculation that he might choose to retire rather than stay in the job for life.
Pressed by journalists Saturday as to whether he had been scared by his latest illness, he shook his head and said "no".
He is set to dive back into work at the Vatican, with a meeting with a top cardinal on the agenda for later Saturday.
His predecessor, Benedict XVI, quit in 2013, in a radical step not seen since the Middle Ages.
Visitors to St Peter's Square on Friday expressed relief over his recovery.
"I was afraid for the pope," said one 56-year-old Italian tourist who gave his name as Davide.
"But I'm happy he's better, that he's returning. For believers and the Catholic community, it's important," he added.
Francis marked 10 years as the head of the worldwide Catholic Church earlier this month.
He has pushed through major governance reforms and sought to forge a more open, compassionate Church, although he has faced internal opposition, particularly from conservatives.
- Presiding over mass -
He has repeatedly said he would consider stepping down were his health to fail him -- but said last month that for now, he has no plans to quit.
During Palm Sunday mass, Francis is expected to remain seated while another cleric -- probably a senior cardinal -- conducts the ceremony at the altar.
The Vatican, citing medical staff, said on Thursday that Francis had been diagnosed with "infectious bronchitis" requiring antibiotics, and that the treatment had brought about a "marked improvement in his state of health".
The Gemelli hospital is the favoured choice of pontiffs to the point of being dubbed "Vatican 3" by pope John Paul II, who was treated nine times at Gemelli and spent a total of 153 days there.
A Jesuit who seems most happy being among his flock, Francis continues to travel internationally and keep a busy schedule.
But he has been forced to use a wheelchair and a walking stick in the past year because of knee pain, and admitted last summer that he had to slow down.
He said on Thursday he was "touched by the many messages" he was receiving in hospital, thanking on Twitter those praying for his recovery.
Francis' earlier stay at Gemelli in July 2021 lasted 10 days. He was admitted after suffering from a type of diverticulitis, an inflammation of pockets that develop in the lining of the intestine, that required surgery.
In an interview in January, the pope said the diverticulitis had returned.