Jane Donovan, a religious studies professor at West Virginia University, said she received several calls Monday from people feeling "puzzled and confused" about the unprecedented resignation.
"The normal expectation is that the pope will die in office, so for him to resign for health reasons is a bit surprising," said Donovan, who specializes in American religious history.
Donovan said the timing is unusual as well.
Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, the 40-day Catholic fast leading to Easter.
"It's most surprising that he's going to leave in the middle of Lent, which is one of the two major religious seasons of the year," Donovan said. "In his statement, he did say he expected there would be a new pope by Easter, so perhaps he's timed it that way to welcome someone new during a significant season in the life of believing Christians."
The office of the pope is something that Donovan lectures about often, and the papacy is significant outside of the church, she said.
"The papacy is a significant office in Christianity with a great deal of history and a great deal of responsibility. A number of popes over the years have been very significant in the development of theology and Catholic practices and beliefs," she said. "What happens in the Catholic Church affects everyone. This is very surprising news."
Though the Vatican stressed that no specific medical condition prompted Benedict's decision, the pope has cut back his travel significantly and goes to and from the altar in St. Peter's Basilica on a moving platform instead of walking down the long aisle.Reach Mackenzie Mays at mackenzie.m...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.