Panetta sat in the front row during a general audience, then patiently waited for the chance to meet the Pope. The two exchanged words for approximately 30 seconds, then the Pope gave Panetta a small gift.
The man in charge of the US military is also a devout Catholic. Born to Italian immigrants from Calabria, Panetta had previously met John Paul II at the Vatican. This is was his first encounter with Benedict XVI.
Having already stopped in Lisbon and Madrid, Panetta arrived in Rome on Tuesday. He is expected to meet with government leaders, including the Italian president and the premier. The last leg of his trip will take him to London, before returning to the United States.