A CONGREGATION wept and cheered when their beloved priest delivered the bombshell that he had tendered his resignation because he had fallen in love.
Popular parish priest Fr Sean McKenna (51) told his stunned congregation at Sunday Mass that he was leaving the priesthood, having embarked on a "loving, beautiful and life-giving relationship".
The priest, who celebrated his silver jubilee earlier this year, is believed to be involved with a mother of two children who is separated from her husband.
The revelation, which has prompted calls for the abolition of mandatory celibacy, comes at a time when the Dublin Catholic Archdiocese is claiming there will soon be barely one priest per parish.
Mayo priest Fr Brendan Hoban is predicting priests will have effectively disappeared in Ireland within three decades.
Fr McKenna, who was ordained in Maynooth in 1985 and has served in three parishes in the Derry diocese, told his congregation in the Holy Family Church, Ballymagroarty, he had made his decision after "a period of discernment and personal reflection".
He revealed that the Bishop of Derry, Dr Seamus Hegarty, had accepted his decision with regret last week. He said that because celibacy was "integral to the priesthood" he could no longer remain a priest.
Following his announcement, he received a standing ovation from an applauding congregation, many of them in tears.
Fr Michael Canny, spokesperson for the Derry Diocese and a friend of Fr McKenna, told the Irish Independent that they had been shocked by the announcement. "It has come as a total shock, like a bolt out of the blue. He has been here 24 years and he has touched so many lives. It is like a wake here today."
All day yesterday, radio stations in Derry were flooded with messages from parishioners expressing their support.
"The Church has lost a good, kind, generous man. He was loving and caring and he did a lot of good for a lot of people," said one woman.
Outspoken Enniskillen-based Passionist priest Fr Brian D'Arcy told the Irish Independent that the Church was losing good men because of an outdated mandatory celibacy rule.
"It is a significant time to think about the value of compulsory celibacy. This may have been suitable for a particular time but that time has now gone. Remember, the first Pope, St Peter, was married.
"It is estimated that 110,000 priests have left the priesthood worldwide, the vast majority because they fell in love. It is extraordinary that the priesthood is being deprived of these very good men," he said.