Pope John Paul II has returned to the Vatican. He was discharged from the Gemelli hospital after 17 days. Patients in robes cheered and waved the pope goodbye from the balconies of their hospital rooms.

Thousands of others lined the route from the hospital to the Vatican.

Earlier, the pope appeared at the window of his hospital room and spoke to the pilgrims with his own voice.

The pope thanked the faithful for coming to see him and wished them a good Sunday and good week. Clapping erupted and the pilgrims shouted out, "Viva il Papa".

It was the first time since his hospitalization February 24 that Pope John Paul II spoke with his own voice. He only said a few words, but used both his native Polish and Italian.

The pope sounded a little hoarse but his words were clear. He looked rested and well as he waved at the pilgrims gathered under his hospital window and made the sign of the cross.

The 84-year old pope was first taken to the hospital February 1 with breathing problems. He went back to the Vatican 10 days later, but had to be rushed to the hospital again two weeks later. Doctors decided he needed a tracheotomy to help him breathe better.

The pope has been doing breathing and speaking exercises since his surgery. The Vatican had said the pope would be back in the Vatican for Holy Week.

But for the first time in his 26-year papacy, the pope has delegated senior cardinals to preside at services leading up to Easter Sunday.

The pope's Sunday message was read by one of his aides in Saint Peter's Square.

He thanked the media for their coverage of his time in the hospital, saying this allowed the Roman Catholics all over the world to be close to the pope and accompany him with their affection and prayers.

In his message, the pope also said he hoped to see many young people taking part in the Palm Sunday ceremony in Saint Peter's Square. How the pope will participate, if at all, remains unclear.