Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls told reporters outside the hospital that the pope slept “for a few hours” during the night, and had “very little fever”.

“When I left him the pope was preparing to celebrate Mass with his secretary,” Monsignor Staneslaw Zewesz, the spokesman said.

The 84-year old pontiff was rushed to hospital fighting for breath late on Tuesday as doctors and close aides kept an anxious bedside watch.

Sources suggested the pope’s health scare was triggered after medication he was taking to fight the flu bug softened his catarrh and “several times threatened him with suffocation”.

“Today, there is no cause for alarm,” Mr Navarro-Valls said.

Earlier, Vatican sources said the pope had spent a “fairly good” night in his room on the 10th floor of Rome’s Gemelli hospital.

Meanwhile, millions of Catholics around the world began prayer vigils for their spiritual leader.

Groups of faithful also held a vigil outside the Gemelli hospital as Rome woke to the news of the papal emergency.

In St Peter’s Square — where the pontiff would normally hold his weekly general audience on Wednesday — nuns sank briefly to their knees and blessed themselves as they passed in front of the window of the papal apartments from which he normally addresses pilgrims.

The pope, who is reported to have had a precautionary CAT scan shortly after his admission to hospital, is being cared for by his medical team in a room on the 10th floor of the Gemelli that has for some years been specially reserved for a papal health emergency.

The pope’s advanced age has given cause for concern in recent years as he fought the affects of advanced age and Parkinson’s disease, but not since a would-be assassin’s bullet just missed his heart in 1981 has he appeared so close to sudden death.

His current visit to the Gemelli is the eighth hospitalisation of the pope who became known as “God’s Athlete” because of his robust delight in outdoor pursuits like mountaineering, skiing, and trekking before age and illness caught up with him.

John Paul II last appeared in public on Sunday, and was noticeably hoarse as he addressed pilgrims in St Peter’s Square, but otherwise appeared in good form.

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