VATICAN CITY (AP) — U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, the leader of the world's largest military, met Pope Benedict XVI, the world's best known advocate for peace, at the Vatican on Wednesday.
Panetta was in the front row at Wednesday's weekly general audience in the Vatican auditorium. About 1,000 people were crowded into the room.
After the Pope addressed the gathering, Panetta and several staff members lined up to meet the pontiff, who gave them rosaries.
Panetta kissed the Pope's hand, and the Pope said, "Thank you for helping to protect the world."
The Pentagon boss responded, "Pray for me."
Panetta, a staunch Catholic, is in Rome as part of a weeklong swing across Europe, meeting with defense ministers to talk about ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and Mali. This is expected to be Panetta's last overseas trip as Pentagon chief, as he long has planned to step down once his replacement is confirmed.
The pontiff has been outspoken in pressing for peace, issuing urgent appeals to end the violence in Syria and urging the international community to spare no effort in seeking a political settlement to the conflict. Most recently he used his annual New Year's speech at the Vatican to call for an end to Syria's civil war. He has also pushed for peace in the Middle East, saying he hopes Jerusalem will one day become "a city of peace and not of division."
Wednesday's Vatican visit is Panetta's third papal audience. Continued...