A popular Irish Catholic priest has quit the priesthood to spend his life with a woman.

Fr. Sean McKenna, 51, received a standing ovation from his local parishioners in Ballymagroarty in Derry when he made the announcement.

The congregation wept and cheered when McKenna said he was leaving the priesthood, having embarked on a "loving, beautiful and life-giving relationship."

McKenna is believed to be involved with a mother of two children who is separated from her husband.

Speaking at the Holy Family Church this weekend, McKenna said he blamed celibacy for his decision to leave the priesthood.

He said he had no choice but to leave after embarking on a “loving” and “beautiful relationship."

“I am here today to tell you that I have decided to leave the priesthood. After a long period of reflection and discernment, I have approached Bishop Hegarty this week to inform him of what I have decided.

“He has, with great regret, agreed to accept my decision. Since being ordained in 1985 I have found my experience of priesthood to be very meaningful and spiritually uplifting.

“However, as you are aware, celibacy is an integral part of the commitment to priesthood. In my personal life, I am in a relationship. The nature of this relationship is such that the rule of celibacy does not allow me to continue in priesthood and to be in this relationship at the same time.”

A spokesman for the Catholic Bishop of Derry, Seamus Hegarty, said Hegarty was “floored” by McKenn'a shock resignation.

Fr. Michael Canny said Hegarty, who was just back from an official visit to the U.S., was "shocked and floored" by the news.

“The bishop was absolutely shocked, he was floored. It was totally unexpected and the decision was final. The bishop had no choice but with regret to accept it.”

Canny added: “In a sense there is so much shock because this came totally out of the blue for everybody. We certainly didn’t expect it.

“He was one of the guys who was highly respected in the parishes he ministred in — Creggan, Long Tower, Ballmagroarty — these communities really valued his opinions and contribution. He has served on countless committees in the diocese.”

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