CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia's highest-ranking Catholic official praised Pope Benedict XVI for his courage and humility following the pontiff's announcement that he planned to retire Feb. 28.
Bishop Michael Bransfield, head of the Wheeling-Charleston Roman Catholic Diocese, said Monday the Pope's decision showed how much he cares for the church.
"By announcing his resignation today, Pope Benedict XVI is showing the great love and devotion he has for the Church, specifically his devotion to Christ our savior," Bransfield said in a statement.
"The Holy Father is being realistic about his physical limitations at this time in his life," he said. "I admire him for his courage and humility."
West Virginia is home to more than 83,000 Roman Catholics, according to the diocese's website.
In addition to overseeing the state churches, Bransfield also serves as president of the Papal Foundation, which helps raise funds for the Pope's charitable interests around the world.
The position has given Bransfield the opportunity to interact with the Pope on numerous occasions over the years.
Diocese spokesman Bryan Minor said Bransfield has held an audience with the Pope at least once a year since the pontiff was appointed in April 2005.
In 2007, Bransfield led a group of American priests on a pilgrimage to the Vatican.
Minor said that as Bransfield was meeting the Pope, he directed the pontiff's attention to a group of West Virginia priests who began singing a chorus of "Take Me Home, Country Roads" to the Holy Father.
At a 2010 Papal Foundation meeting, Bransfield also got to present the Pope with a cake to mark his 83rd birthday.
While Bransfield showed support for the decision, other Vatican watchers were taken aback.
"I was very surprised -- this is really unprecedented," said Dr. Jane Donovan, a professor of religious studies at West Virginia University.
Donovan said only four popes have resigned in the history of the church, and most of those resignations were due to political influences.
The last time a pope gave up the Holy See was 1415, when Gregory XII abdicated in order to resolve a division within the Catholic Church.
"This was really the first time a pope has resigned for health reasons," Donovan said. "Normally the pope is a lifetime office; it's been 600 years since a pope didn't die in office."
The first pope to resign was Pope Benedict IX. He gave up the papacy in 1045 so that he could get married.
While the current Pope is well-revered, Pope Benedict IX was seen as only having ascended to the papacy due to family connections. So scandalous was his lifestyle that one historian described him as "a demon from hell in the disguise of a priest."
Benedict IX's resignation in 1045 was followed by Pope Gregory IV's resignation due to political pressure in 1046. Gregory was forced out in part because he had paid Benedict IX, his godson, to step down so that he may assume the papacy.
Donovan said she plans to closely watch how Catholics react to the situation in the coming weeks.
"It will be interesting to see how individual Catholics in the pews view this news," she said. "Most I know seem to feel very sympathetic and concerned that his health would be sufficiently frail that he would need to take such a radical step."
While details surrounding the Pope's decision might not be known for some time, Donovan said the official Vatican release on the Pope's resignation may contain some hints to his future.
The release said after the Pope resigns, he would live in a cloistered convent inside the Vatican.
"It is a cloistered convent, meaning there's no one going in and out," Donovan said. "This suggests to me the possibility that he anticipates the need for nursing care, but that's just a guess on my part."
She said the conclave to select the next Pope would be interesting, given the changing demographics of the church.
"The church is growing quite fast in the southern hemisphere, you're going to have a lot more cardinals from Africa, south America, southeast Asia," she said. "I will be interested to see how they will play into this."
Donovan said the timing of the Pope's decision was also quite unusual.
This Wednesday is marks the beginning of Lent, the forty-day fast leading into the Easter holiday celebrating Jesus Christ's resurrection.
Donovan said the Lenten season is one of two seasons of high ceremony in the church, the other being the Advent season leading up to Christmas.
She found it odd that a pope would step down during such a prominent time of year.
"There are a number of other public worship events that normally you would expect the pope to be at during Lent," Donovan said.
But Bransfield had a different take.
During a Monday morning homily at the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Wheeling, Bransfield said the timing was perfect.
"It is beautiful that he has chosen this to occur during Lent and completion by Easter, so that the presence of the Holy Spirit and the resurrection of Christ become living examples of what the church is moving toward," Bransfield said.
While he acknowledged the Pope's decision was sudden, Bransfield encouraged fellow Catholics to trust in God during the upcoming transition to a new leader.
"We always trust in the Holy Spirit and ultimately, because the upcoming Lenten season is a deeply spiritual time for Catholics, we must continue to have great trust in the Holy Spirit during this period of transition in our Church," he said.
Minor said video of Bransfield's homily would be available on the diocese website for the rest of the week.
He said iPhone and iPad users could watch the bishop's message on their mobile device using the direct link, www.dwc.org/homily.
Contact writer Jared Hunt at jared.h...@dailymail.com or 304-348-5148.