VATICAN CITY – For most Catholics, visiting the Vatican is a dream: a chance to experience the heart of Catholicism, the Pope, St. Peter’s Square, the history.

But being there during a papal election and installation is like nothing else.

“Being in the middle of (a papal election) is kind of being at the center of the world for a week,” said Monsignor Christopher Nalty, who worked at the Vatican from 2003 to 2008 and is now stationed in New Orleans archdiocese.

Nalty and others with ties to Louisiana were in Rome to witness recent historic events as the world — Christian and non-Christian alike — focused on the naming of the next leader of the Roman Catholic Church.

“The emotions that day (Pope Benedict XVI resigned) were really hard,” said Jennifer Miller, a doctoral student in Rome from Eunice. “I cried. I saw priests crying … You saw a lot of people shaken.

“People started praying,” she said Tuesday. “It was incredible. What does it mean when the pope leaves us? People were saying, ‘The world is changing.’ ”

Miller was in St. Peter’s Square on March 13 when the white smoke signaled a new pope.

“When we realized it was white, the piazza went crazy … Everybody put their umbrellas down and started running to the front because you know the pope’s going to come down on the balcony for the presentation,” Miller said. “Nobody yelled, nobody pushed, nobody got angry at anybody else … People weren’t just gonna wait. The entire time, the ‘Salve Regina’ kept arriving like waves. It was the only song we could communicate with.”

Nalty also was in St. Peter’s Square for the conclave.

“Everyone was screaming and waiting for ‘Papa Francesco,’” Nalty said. “When he came out, what was probably most memorable was when he asked everyone, ‘Pray for me.’

“There was over 200,000 people there,” Nalty said. “To become totally still…sometimes you’ll go to football games and ask for a moment of silence. That’s frequently the absence of noise. This was really the presence of the Holy Spirit. It was so moving and peaceful to be there in a group of people asking for prayers for the Holy Father.”

Teeny Perret, of Lafayette, was in Rome for Pope Francis’ installation Mass and appreciated the respect people showed.

“Security was tight for the installation Mass. I assume it was because of all the dignitaries that were present,” Perret said. “I could not get over the reverence that everyone had for the Mass even though so many people were there. I really like the fact that he said we must take care of the poor. All human beings should do this today, and I am glad he stressed this in his talk,” Perret said.

Hallet Dunn, a 2012 graduate of LSU who now teaches English in Prague, was there March 17 for Pope Francis’ first Angelus.

“The atmosphere in Rome is absolutely electric. There are thousands of people filling the streets, and everyone is smiling. Children are calling out, ‘Viva il Papa!’ It’s probably the happiest place in the world right now,” she said.

During Holy Week, that intense enthusiasm for the new pope has remained on display as Francis has continued preaching about living simply, remembering the poor and finding that one lost sheep.

At his first papal audience on Wednesday, Pope Francis smiled, waved and picked up small children to kiss them.

He appeared slightly overwhelmed by the thousands of people chanting his name.

Hundreds of young adults shouted, “The youth belong to the Pope!” in Spanish, and even those that didn’t speak the language participated.

With a kind smile and soft hands, the soft-spoken pope reached for those around him, eagerly welcoming and greeting his people.

Pope Francis’ papacy has had an “incredible beginning,” Miller said, noting “the changes that he has made to kind of simplify the way the pontiff is perceived by the outside world.

“Especially in the time of consumerism when we see perhaps the simplification in the personality of John Paul II and in the writings of Benedict XVI, but we see it really lived by this simple, heart completely on fire for the Lord by Francis,” she said. “I think it’s a good sign for all of us.”

McKenzie Womack, of Baton Rouge, is a senior mass communication major at LSU in Rome this week on a family trip. At the end of the papal audience on Wednesday, Pope Francis came over to where she was sitting and shook her hand three times.