BROOKSVILLE — When the Rev. Craig Morley replaced retiring priest Robert Donlan at St. Anthony Catholic Church in July, he says he "took over a warm chair."
"It functions on its own," Morley said about the leadership position at the church.
Still, Morley has been implementing some of his own ideas.
"Everybody's got their own style," he said. "I'm sure things that I do will be different than things that he has done."
Religious Sister of Mercy Jean Little, director of faith formation for the church, said Morley brings energy, enthusiasm and competence as he imparts faith and welcomes and receives parishioners.
"He has a strong commitment to his role as pastor, including a love for liturgy and music so important to the worshiping community, especially on Sunday," she said. "He's able to deliver challenging and hopeful homilies that enhance the Mass, where the Eucharist is the source and summit of our Catholic worship and tradition."
Little also thinks Morley has a sense of humor and "seems comfortable in himself."
"I bring my own personality to my ministry," Morley said. "Of course, sometimes it drives people crazy, but that's me. I try to bring humor into my ministry, because many times, if someone's having a difficult time, they don't see anything but their problem. But if you can bring humor into it, it kind of lightens things up, and they see they aren't quite as dark as they thought they were and that things will work out."
Morley, 48, did not make the decision to enter the priesthood lightly. As a child in Brandon, he spent a lot of time in the church.
"My mom was the church secretary, so I was always around the rectory and the offices," he said. "So I got to really understand and know what a priest did."
Even though he "always knew" what he was going to do with his life, he didn't make the decision to become a priest until after he had served in the military. After six years of flying helicopters in the Army, he entered the seminary, attending the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio. He received a bachelor's degree and completed one year of theological studies.
Still not yet ready to make a commitment to the ministry, he returned to flying helicopters as a civilian, piloting charter planes in Miami, Orlando and throughout the southeastern United States.
"We covered three television stations and ran charter flights for corporate people, people sightseeing, medical transport and construction," Morley said.
Then he was ready.
In 1997, he returned to the seminary, attending St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach.
"It wasn't difficult deciding," Morley said about becoming a priest. "I knew what I was going to do. It was just a matter of doing it."
Morley was ordained into the priesthood on May 19, 2001, and assigned to St. Mary Catholic Church in Tampa. In 2003, he was reassigned to the Cathedral of St. Jude the Apostle in St. Petersburg. In 2005, he began his ministry at St. Luke the Evangelist in Palm Harbor. His assignment in Brooksville is his first as a parish pastor.
Morley said his experiences before becoming a priest have uniquely qualified him to be a pastor.
"I was on my own. I had my own apartment, car payments, electric, phone and all that stuff," he said. "So I know what people are going through. I know the struggles they have, because I've done that, too. I know where people are coming from. It's helped me in having real compassion for people and understanding them."
So far, it has gone well.
"The people here are great," he said. "The place is great. It's an unbelievable parish."
Morley said he hopes to continue what Donlan started and to "maybe help the people grow."
"I told the people at Mass the other day that I'd love to be able to drive people out of here and say, 'Go home. I've got to lock up.' I'd love to see the place become very active and vibrant. I just want to help the people understand and get closer to knowing God. That's my role."
Bishop Robert Lynch will install Morley as pastor at the 10 a.m. Mass on Dec. 14. Morley said that will be a real honor.
"I respect him so much," he said. "I know the difficulties that I have now as a pastor, so I can just imagine what he has as a bishop. It's very humbling that he would take the time out to come here and do this."