Utahn Joseph Delka was among the throngs packed in St. Peter's Square on Wednesday, staring in amazement as white smoke came pouring out of the chimney and the bells of St. Peter's began to peal.
Delka could feel the energy in the crowd as the doors to the balcony opened, the rain cleared and a red-robed cardinal said those historic words: We have a pope.
But the lanky Salt Laker is not just a curiosity seeker or bystander: Delka is living at the Pontifical North American College and studying to be a priest.
He is in his second year of the sacred theology baccalaureate program and told the Intermountain Catholic that it has been "a wild ride."
This week it just got wilder.
The days leading up to Pope Francis' election were "surreal," seeing American cardinals who were staying at their school in casual settings, Delka wrote in an email from Rome.
"Meeting [New York] Cardinal [Timothy] Dolan in the hallway, [Boston] Cardinal [Sean] O'Malley taking a stroll outside, and [Washington] Cardinal [Donald] Wuerl on the treadmill in the gym," he writes, wondering if one of them would be the next Vicar of Christ.
Then came the announcement and Pope Francis came into view.
The Argentine pontiff asked for a blessing and then led the crowd in traditional Catholic prayers.
He will become Delka's role model, as Benedict was before.
The seminarian became a member of the Catholic Church in 2007, two years into Benedict's tenure.
The now emeritus leader was "my pope," Delka says, "and I am sad to see him go, though I understand his reasons for leaving and I admire his humility. He is a brilliant theologian and a holy man whose example and writings will continue to guide me."
Both leaders as well as other priests are "holy men who love God and love their people," he says, who "encourage me to continue pursuing this call to the priesthood."
It's not a life without challenges, Delka writes, but one dedicated to "loving service to God and the church."
The future priest now has a ringside seat on the faith going forward.