The pope is a figure the Church considers infallible. So some local Catholics asking today how the Pope can resign. Others are calling it a humble and sincere decision before God.
Father David Brault began his Monday morning homily to his regular parishioners at St. John's in White Oak with a not-so-common message. Some among the three dozen or so in attendance were hearing the news for the first time.
"For all the Catholic world it's a big surprise," says Jim Roles, a local Catholic.
The unexpected decision from the pontiff comes not only on a holy day for Catholics, the Feast of our lady of Lourdes, but also two days before Ash Wednesday, the start of Lenten season, which is considered to be the holiest month for all Christians.
The news quickly reverberated throughout the Archdiocese of Washington.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl said at a news conference Monday that he was shocked by Pope Benedict XVI's decision to resign. But he said it was a sign of the pope's humility and love for the church that he concluded he was no longer able to perform his duties.
Wuerl declined to speculate on whether the cardinals might choose a younger or non-European pope, but he said age would be considered. He says the church needs a pope "whose physical energy would allow him to travel."
He says Benedict appeared physically and mentally fit when he last saw him.
"When I was recently in Rome, he gave no indication," said Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of D.C.
On the Catholic University campus, and around the world, the talk has already turned to Pope Benedict's possible successor.
"There's a very good possibility that we're going to have a Pope from a completely different part of the world to speak to the needs of those people," says Catholic University's Dean of Theology Rev. Mark Morozowich.
Student Alexandra Garner added, "...I am kind of excited to see the process of another pope. "
Contenders to be his successor include Cardinal Angelo Scola, archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, the archbishop of Vienna, and Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the Canadian head of the Vatican's office for bishops.
Longshots include Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York. Although Dolan is popular and backs the pope's conservative line, the general thinking is that the Catholic Church doesn't need a pope from a "superpower."
"It's very possible that the Pope may come from one of the southern hemisphere countries where the church is so vibrant and alive," Morozowich says.
It's a thought not lost on Ron Johnson, a retiree who goes to mass daily.
"We need to have a pope who recognizes there's things going on in the world now, it's not just in Rome," Johnson says. "We need a very strong pope who can reach out to people all countries, and faiths even."
Father David Braul says the decision has caught the church off guard, but he's not exactly surprised. Father Brault says the timing is actually quit perfect. It's a chance during lent to ask God, what does he want from all of us.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.