ROME -- On what is probably his last trip as defense secretary, Leon E. Panetta had an audience on Wednesday morning at the Vatican with Pope Benedict XVI, who told him, Mr. Panetta said, "Thank you for helping to protect the world." Mr. Panetta said he replied, "Pray for me."
Mr. Panetta, the son of Italian immigrants who attends Mass every Sunday, is halfway through a weeklong trip to Europe meant as a goodbye tour of American allies. Later on Wednesday he is to meet with the Italian prime minister, Mario Monti, as well as the president of Italy, Giorgio Napolitano.
Mr. Panetta's audience with the pope was far from private, although he had a close-up view. Mr. Panetta sat in the front row of the Pope Pius VI Audience Hall, where 7,000 others had gathered for the pope's weekly audience. After an hourlong service, Mr. Panetta filed up with several dozen people, including a bride, to receive a blessing from the pope, who spoke to him at that time.
Defense officials said Mr. Panetta previously had an audience with Pope John Paul II when Mr. Panetta, who was a budget director and a chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, accompanied Mr. Clinton to Rome. He also had an audience with John Paul in Washington.
Mr. Panetta's likely successor is Chuck Hagel, who is preparing for Senate confirmation hearings later this month or early next month. After 18 months as defense secretary and many decades in government, Mr. Panetta plans to return to his walnut farm in Carmel Valley, Calif.
He has also visited Spain and Portugal during this trip. On Tuesday in Lisbon, Mr. Panetta restated the administration position that the United States would not send ground troops to Mali, where militants were pushing toward one of Mali's largest cities as France continued with airstrikes and pledged more troops.
"There is no consideration of putting any American boots on the ground at this time," he said.
Later on Tuesday in Madrid, he reiterated that the United States would offer France air and logistical support but declined to be more specific. He said that France faced a difficult task in trying to rout extremists from a vast area in northern Mali and that the Pentagon remained in talks with the French over what kind of military aid the United States would provide.
At a joint news conference in Madrid with the Spanish defense minister, Pedro Morenés, Mr. Panetta deflected a question about his assessment of French progress against the extremists, who overran a central village on Monday only hours after the French foreign minister said confidently that France had blocked "the advance of the terrorists." Mr. Panetta said the United States was "still trying to get a read" on French efforts and strategy.
"I can't really give you a full analysis as to just exactly what they're targeting and how successful or not successful they may be in that effort as of this moment," Mr. Panetta said. "Any time you confront an enemy that is dispersed and that is not located necessarily in one area makes it challenging, and the ability to go after that enemy and be able to stop them from moving forward represents a difficult task."
Correction: January 16, 2013, Wednesday
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the length of Mr. Panetta's term as defense secretary. He has been in the role for 18 months, not 28.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.