Janna Reynolds, The Catholic Virginian
The adage says that if you love something, let it go, and if it comes back to you, it’s yours forever. The beginning of Father Anthony Morris’ vocation was a unique realization of that.
Father Morris spent two years in the seminary after graduating from high school before he left to pursue other ventures. He joined the Army, worked at a restaurant, took a job renovating houses. He was even engaged to be married.
He will celebrate 25 years of priesthood on May 7.
“I come from a very strong Catholic family, but I pulled away from the Church as a young adult,” said the priest.
Then, in June 1986, Father Morris, the second youngest of eight children, lost an older brother. At that time, Father Morris had been away from the Church for seven or eight years.
“His death shook me up, and I went back to church. He was only 29 when he died. I was 25 at the time, and it shook me up, got me back to church, got me back to praying,” the priest said.
He made a “very powerful” confession at St. Pius X, Norfolk; that was “key for me going back to seminary,” said Father Morris. It had been around five years since he had received the sacrament.
“He (the confessor) was incredibly loving, this big barrel of a man. I remember I was trying not to cry because I was embarrassed. He sat down and listened to me and said, ‘I can tell you this, Tony. One, you’re being harder on yourself than God is. Two, if I was a betting man, I’d bet within 10 years you’ll be a priest.’ And six years later I was ordained,” Father Morris said.
In 1992, he was ordained a Redemptorist priest, a religious order he first encountered and for whom he “developed a great love” while growing up in Virginia Beach. He served with them as a pastor for 11 years, first at St. Joseph, Hampton, then at St. Mary Star of the Sea, Fort Monroe.
During his last year at St. Mary, Father Morris was diagnosed with Stage 1 cancer and took a leave of absence to recover. When he felt well enough to help out on the weekends, he began going to diocesan parishes in the Tidewater area.
“I had more time to see my spiritual direction and found myself being pulled more and more toward the type of spiritual mission that a diocesan priest did,” he said. “I will always have a love for the Redemptorists, but I felt like I spiritually moved past that to want to be a diocesan priest, to be more anchored in one area.”
Father Morris greatly enjoyed his studies for the priesthood. He even commuted from Hampton to Richmond while he worked toward his master’s degree in social work, graduating from VCU in 2001.
“I wanted to use it for the counseling skills. It helped me be able to understand where people are at in different moments, being able to say the right words when they’re broken about something,” he explained.
In 2015, Father Morris became pastor of the Cluster Parishes of Portsmouth and Chesapeake, which includes Church of the Resurrection, St. Paul and Church of the Holy Angels in Portsmouth and St. Mary, Chesapeake.
He was incardinated into the Diocese of Richmond in 2017.
Though his incardination was only two years ago, the priest says he was already living away from the Redemptorists when he was pastor in Farmville in 2010 — a fact he didn’t initially realize.
“Bishop DiLorenzo said to me years earlier when I was pastor at St. Joseph, ‘You know, Tony, you’re living the life of a diocesan priest.’ And I said, ‘No, I’m not.’ He just chuckled and said, ‘We’ll see. I anticipate change.’ He saw it in me four or five years before I saw it in myself. I brought that up to him when I signed my paperwork. He said, ‘I remember,’” Father Morris said.
He greatly enjoys seeing the ways he has been able to touch lives spiritually.
Father Morris said that sometimes he experiences the human part of not wanting to wake up to go to work in the middle of the night but afterwards finds himself thanking God for the chance to do so.
“In Portsmouth I was performing the anointing ritual on someone, and halfway through he stopped breathing. I knew that he was gone. Those moments. Oh my God, what an incredible grace that I get to be there for them.”
Six years ago, Father Morris was again diagnosed with cancer, this time Stage 4.
“It was pretty bad. I didn’t even know if I’d make it to my 25th, but I did by God’s grace,” he said.
Father Morris believes he has ended up where he knew he was meant to be.
“God knew I was going to be a priest. He knew it was what I wanted and what he wanted for me. It’s lightyears more than what I ever anticipated and hoped for. So much more,” he said.