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Pope Francis speaks with a health worker at the Gemelli hospital, as he recovers following scheduled surgery on his colon, in Rome, Italy, July 11, 2021.VATICAN MEDIA/Reuters

Pope Francis visited young cancer patients at the Rome hospital where he is recovering from intestinal surgery before his release, which the Vatican said Tuesday would take place “as soon as possible.”

A smiling and standing pope patted the children on their heads as their parents held them, according to photos of the encounter released by the Vatican. The visit to the Gemelli Polyclinic’s pediatric cancer ward, located on the same 10th floor as the pope’s suite, took place Tuesday afternoon.

The Vatican, in its daily medical update, didn’t provide a target date for the pope’s release from the hospital. It repeated that the 84-year-old Francis was continuing his planned course of treatment and rehabilitation.

Francis had half of his colon removed for a severe narrowing of his large intestine on July 4, his first major surgery since he became pope in 2013.

The Vatican had originally said Francis could be released from Rome’s Gemelli Polyclinic by the weekend, but said he was staying a few days longer.

The 84-year-old appeared for the first time in public since the surgery on Sunday, looking in good form as he delivered his weekly prayer from the 10th floor hospital balcony, surrounded by young cancer patients. He used the occasion to call for free health care for all.

Francis was later seen greeting older patients in the hospital corridor, using a wheelchair.

The Vatican said Francis was praying especially for people who are bedridden and cannot return home.

“May they live this time as an opportunity, even if experienced in pain, to open themselves with tenderness to their sick brother or sister in the next bed, with whom they share the same human frailty,” the Vatican said in its Tuesday statement.

The Argentine pope had part of one lung removed when he was a young man but has otherwise enjoyed relatively robust health.

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