- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 16, 2013

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.

The Italian-American Panetta, who was born in California, made the first trip to Italy in the 1950s, traveling with his parents to visit his grandparents. During that trip, Panetta made his first visit to St. Peter’s Basilica.

Panetta made subsequent trips to Rome as a member of Congress, and had an audience with Pope John Paul II when he traveled to Rome with then-President Bill Clinton. He later had a second audience with Pope John Paul II in Washington.

While director of the CIA, Panetta visited the Vatican, but did not see the Pope.

On his overseas trips, Panetta often will go to Catholic mass at a local church.

Panetta, who often works his Italian ancestry into his speeches, told reporters traveling with him that this visit to Italy has a “lot of tremendous personal meaning for me, since I’m the son of Italian immigrants.” He often talks about his parents’ decision to come to America so that they could provide a better life for their children.

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