Pope John Paul II's continued hospitalization has forced him to miss Ash Wednesday prayers for the first time in his 26-year papacy, as the once-taboo issue of a possible resignation is openly debated.
As the Pope on Tuesday began a second week in a Rome hospital, where the 84-year-old pontiff is being treated for respiratory problems, there was no official word of when he might be discharged.
Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the pope's secretary of state, hosted US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during a brief trip to the Vatican on Tuesday, after a meeting with the pope was ruled out.
Sodano, 77, significantly did not dismiss the idea of a papal resignation out of hand, as Vatican watchers have almost come to expect as the normal Vatican reflex. Instead he said, "Let's leave that to the pope's conscience."
The comment reverberated around Rome. "The taboo question has returned to circulate around the Vatican," said <i>Corriere della Sera</i> daily.
Ash Wednesday marks the start of the Lent, the 40-day Christian period of sacrifice and penitence which culminates in the Easter celebrations.