U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who has been calling himself a “son of Europe” on a week-long visit to European capitals, arrived in Rome and met Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican today.
Panetta, 74, the son of Italian immigrants, has been to Lisbon and Madrid and plans to visit London later this week on what is probably his last international trip before leaving President Barack Obama’s administration. Obama has nominated former Senator Chuck Hagel to be the next defense secretary.
Panetta, a Roman Catholic, attended a prayer gathering at the Pius VI Audience hall in the Vatican with several thousand people. The auditorium has a capacity of about 7,300.
During the hour-long event the Pope delivered benediction in several languages including Arabic. Panetta, along with about two dozen people including a newlywed couple, went up the stage to kiss the pope’s ring.
Panetta said the pope told him, “Thank you for helping to protect the world,” to which Panetta said he responded, “Pray for me.”
Later in the day Panetta meets with Italian officials including President Giorgio Napolitano, Prime Minister Mario Monti, Defense Minister Giampaolo di Paola and Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi. Panetta plans to issue a statement in Italian after meeting his counterpart.
Panetta’s European trip, billed as an effort to thank NATO allies who have sent troops to the war effort in Afghanistan, has been overshadowed by questions about what role the U.S. will assume in Mali. France has committed about 1,700 troops and sent about 800 to the West African nation to beat back Islamist militants threatening to take over the country.
The U.S. has started sharing some intelligence information with France on Mali and is considering providing airlift as well as logistics support.