Tucson's top Roman Catholic clergy and church observers were as surprised as any by Pope Benedict's resignation announcement Monday morning.

Bishop Gerald Kicanas of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson first heard the news from a reporter who called his house at 4:30 a.m.

Bob Burns, chairman of the Religious Studies Program at the University of Arizona and scholar of Catholicism, found out that Pope Benedict had resigned from a television newscast.

"It's kind of surprising to everyone," Burns said.

"He likes surprises, I think," said Kicanas, noting that Pope Benedict made the unusual announcement that he was appointing new cardinals at a meeting last year.

After criticism that the college of cardinals was dominated by Europeans, Benedict appointed six non-Europeans to the body from which the next pope will be chosen, including two who have brothers who live in Tucson, Kicanas said.

"I don't know whether there was some message in there or not," he said.

The church has certainly become more global. About three-quarters of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics live outside of Europe, according to a recent study from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Still, a majority of cardinals are European, Vatican data show.

The pope's resignation announcement may have been sudden, but his deteriorating health has been in plain view.

At the last senate meeting, the pontiff was alert but seemed very weary at the end, Kicanas said. The once vibrant walker could not traverse the room unaided.

Pope Benedict had also made public his views on possible resignation, and the decision seems to fit his personality, Kicanas said, noting the contrast with Pope John Paul's decision to keep the position even as his health failed, at least in part to embody the suffering that many experience at an advanced age.

"He's a very responsible person," Kicanas said of Pope Benedict. "You have to give him a lot of credit. I think it reflects his love of the church."

Burns also lauded the choice. "I respect him because he's the first one to do it" for hundreds of years, he said. "It's an act of courage."

Kicanas expects Benedict to step aside completely and for the awkwardness of having a pope emeritus during a new pontiff's reign to be minimal.

"He will probably go back to writing," Kicanas said. "He was on the public stage, which for a man who is introverted is a tremendously draining experience."

Contact reporter Carli Brosseau at cbrosseau@azstarnet.com or 573-4197. On Twitter @carlibrosseau.