Bishop Earl Boyea, 71, has led the Diocese of Lansing, Michigan since 2008. He was born in Pontiac, Michigan, and grew up in Waterford, the oldest of 10 children. He entered the seminary for the Archdiocese of Detroit, ordained a priest in 1978, and named an auxiliary bishop in 2002.
In 1984, Bishop Boyea earned a Master’s degree in American History from Wayne State University, and in 1987 he obtained his PhD in Church History from the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. where his thesis focused on the National Catholic Welfare Council (now the USCCB) between the years 1935 and 1945. Bishop Boyea belongs to the Catholic Biblical Association, Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, and American Catholic Historical Association.
From 1987 to 2000, he taught Church history and Sacred Scripture at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, where he became dean of studies in 1990. From 2000 to 2002, he was the Rector-President and a professor at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio.
In November 2021, Bishop Boyea was elected Chairman of the USCCB Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations. Much of the work of the committee has focused on drafting and getting approval from Rome for the sixth edition of the Program for Priestly Formation, which governs seminary education for priests. Approval was given by Rome in April 2022. The two big changes included in this new program are, first, the creation of an initial non-academic period of formation called the “propaedeutic stage,” and second, after ordination to the transitional diaconate, a period of “vocational synthesis,” designed to be a period in which newly ordained deacons live full-time in a parish or other pastoral setting.
Lansing was established as a diocese in 1937, and is comprised of 10 counties previously part of the Archdiocese of Detroit and the Diocese of Grand Rapids. It is located in the southern part of mid-Michigan and has a population of 1.8 million, 185,000 of whom are Catholic. The diocese has 72 parishes and 77 active diocesan priests and 28 seminarians. The diocese also has several religious communities, including the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.
CWR: Please tell us a bit about your upbringing.
Bishop Earl Boyea: I was raised in northern Detroit. My father was an auto worker. We were an observant Catholic home, going to Mass on Sundays and Catholic school. I remember praying the rosary as a family when I was young, but that didn’t last too long. I wonder if our discontinuing it had something to do with the changes in the Church after Vatican II.
Both my parents are still alive, but not doing too well. My mother has dementia, and my father uses a walker. Most of my siblings are retired and help care for them; although I’m still working, I still come up and try to help out.
CWR: Why did you decide to enter seminary?
Bishop Boyea: From the second grade, I knew I wanted to be a priest. I loved the Church, and I loved the sacraments. My reasons deepened over the years.
I told my parents I wanted to go to the high school seminary, but they initially told me they could not afford the tuition. But my father was working for Pontiac Motors at the time, and received a $6,000 bonus for a suggestion he made to the company. He came home and told me, “You can go to the seminary.”
CWR: What was it like coming to the Diocese of Lansing?
Bishop Boyea: I had two wonderful predecessors, Bishops Kenneth Povish and Carl Mengeling. They were deeply engaged with our clergy, and followed Church teaching. They were friendly, kind men, so when I came into the diocese, it was a positive environment. Additionally, our clergy got along well.
When I arrived, the diocese was in the midst of planning for the future number of parishes. Due to changes in demographics and finances, the diocesan leadership was looking at reducing our number of parishes. I had a choice to accept their plan to close parishes, or start over again. I opted to accept their plan, and from 2008 to 2018, we reduced our number of parishes from 97 to 72.
CWR: Vatican officials just approved the sixth edition of the Program for Priestly Formation drafted by the USCCB committee of which you are a part. Key changes included the addition of a propaedeutic stage and vocational synthesis period. How has seminary formation changed from the time you were a seminarian?
Bishop Boyea: We did not have the same opportunities for one-on-one relationships as seminarians do today; now every seminarian has a spiritual director and formation director. We also did not have as strong peer relationships, a sense of responsibility for one another, like there is today. Academically, my formation was strong. Pastorally, we have more engagement today than I had.
CWR: In 2012, you issued the pastoral letter “Go and Announce the Gospel of the Lord”, which seeks to begin the process of “forming communities of missionary disciples who go and announce the Gospel of the Lord” to inactive Catholics and non-Catholics. What are some of the key points of this letter? And what success have you had in the past ten years?
Bishop Boyea: I didn’t initially want to write a pastoral letter, as I thought no one would read it. But we had put together a committee to address this topic, and it was their recommendation I write this pastoral letter. I haven’t written another one since.
The letter has three parts: building up the household of the faith, reaching out to lost sheep, and affecting our culture in positive ways. On the positive side, people are thinking more about discipleship and the mission of the Church than ever before, and we have many more small prayer groups. As far as reaching out to the lost sheep and affecting the culture, we have been less successful. I think many people are uncomfortable sharing their faith, and our challenge has been to form the culture, rather than have it form us.
CWR: Why do you think the number of active Catholics has declined over recent decades?
Bishop Boyea: In years past, many of our people were Catholic because that was the culture in which they grew up and by which they were sustained. They don’t see that they are personally loved and saved by Jesus, which is so necessary to preserving our faith today in a culture that is often hostile to what we believe, so they fall away.
CWR: Your diocese has done well for vocations to the priesthood and religious life when others are struggling. What has been key to your success?
Bishop Boyea: Undeserved grace. We don’t deserve it, but God has graced us with it. We do have our young priests promoting vocations and full-time chaplains at each of our four diocesan high schools, as well as wonderful vocations directors. But, in the end, it is still an undeserved grace.
CWR: Your diocese is home to the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, who just celebrated their 25th anniversary. You offered Holy Mass at their jubilee celebrations. Can you talk about this community and what gifts it has brought to the Church?
Bishop Boyea: This community was founded in New York, and their move to Ann Arbor was facilitated by Tom Monaghan and my predecessor, Bishop Mengeling. They have been flourishing. Every year, I participate in ceremonies in which six to eight of their sisters pronounce final vows.
Their focus is on education. They help at two of our high schools, one of our grade schools, and have two grade schools of their own in our diocese. We’d love to have them at more of our schools, but we accept that they have to spread out their work across the country.
They wear the Dominican habit, which speaks quite loudly to some young people, and have a strong sense of community. The sisters never go out alone; you always see them in groups of three, four, or five.
CWR: You’ve taught classes on Scripture. For lay Catholics who might not spend time reading the Bible, how would you recommend they begin?
Bishop Boyea: I’ve led summer Scripture days, in which I’ve given five or six talks on Scripture, including one on Revelation, and I did a biography of St. Paul. We had a Year of the Bible, in which my aim was not to cover the whole Bible, but to walk through certain books with participants.
But I like to recommend that people start by reading the four Gospels, which tell us of the life of Christ.
CWR: You’ve also taught Church history. What was your area of focus?
Bishop Boyea: I did my doctoral dissertation on the U.S. bishops’ conference from 1935 to 1945. This included the years of the Depression and World War II. The conference began different outreach programs at that time, and supported the calls for peace that were being made by Pope Pius XII.
CWR: You celebrate the Traditional Latin Mass?
Bishop Boyea: We have five locations that offer the Latin Mass in the diocese. I’ve given dispensations for the Masses to continue, with permission to the priests to say the Mass, in accordance with Traditionis custodes. I typically say the Latin Mass about once a year, when I’m meeting with these groups.
CWR: Enrollment in your diocesan schools increased 6% last year at a time when other dioceses are closing schools. What has been key to your success?
Bishop Boyea: We insist that our Catholic schools are fully Catholic, and we’ve had some wonderful superintendents. I think our schools have been a draw to many parents because [parents] are disenchanted with the way things are going in our culture. They are looking for a solid Catholic formation and education.
CWR: Why did the Diocese of Lansing’s new policy on “gender identity” needed to be implemented?
Bishop Boyea: We insist that our students be treated according to their genetic gender. As Pope Francis has said, this is the way God made us. While we realize that there are those who struggle to accept that gender, the teenage years or younger is no time to be making final decisions about gender reassignment. Once they’ve turned eighteen, they can then make that decision, although we certainly don’t encourage that they do!
One area that I think these groups don’t talk enough about is what happens if someone is not healed? Jesus asked His Father to be spared from the cross while in the Garden of Gethsemane, which He was not. That is because God can draw greater good from not healing us of a particular situation, just as He did with Jesus going to His death on the cross. I’m all for healing, but don’t be disheartened if you are not. Give yourself totally over to God’s will.
CWR: Any thoughts on the effort to amend the Michigan State Constitution to include a right to abortion?
Bishop Boyea: It was just approved by the Michigan Supreme Court to appear on our November ballot. It is a very extreme measure, quashing any form of parental consent for minors seeking abortions, for example, and shouldn’t be part of our constitution. Our Michigan Catholic Conference has been spearheading this struggle, trying to convince voters to vote no on this measure.
CWR: You offered some words of encouragement to University of Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh, who not only encouraged his players to be pro-life, but said that he and his wife would raise any child saved from abortion but that they could not raise.
Bishop Boyea: Jim is being true to his understanding of how God created us and to his Catholic faith as well.
CWR: Any final thoughts?
Bishop Boyea: I feel incredibly blessed by our presbyterate as well as the curia staff with whom I work. I also feel blessed to lead the Diocese of Lansing, and look forward to more good years here.
(Editor’s note: This interview has been edited lightly for clarity and length.)
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