‘Heroic faith.’ Why this Catholic hermit decided to come out as transgender | Opinion

Pentecost is a momentous day in the Christian calendar, commemorating the moment when the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles of Jesus, leading them to speak in tongues and be bold in proclaiming the gospel. It is a fulfillment of a promise by the risen Jesus Christ that he would send his followers the Holy Spirit.

This year’s Pentecost on May 19 was a momentous day for Brother Christian Matson, a Catholic hermit who lives a life of quiet devotion in Eastern Kentucky. It’s when he fulfilled a promise to himself that he would celebrate his devotion to the Catholic Church by telling the world he was a transgender man, which he did with a long story in the Religion News Service.

“I picked Pentecost because of the connection to preaching the gospel,” Matson told me in a phone interview.

He spoke with permission from his diocesan leader, Lexington Bishop John Stowe, who accepted him as a hermit in the diocese three years ago.

Matson had some other reasons, too. He’s about to turn 40. But most of all, he said, “There are a number of laws getting passed around our country, including in Kentucky, as well as policies being published in the Church, that are making life more difficult for transgender people and are based on faulty assumptions about them.”

Catholic hermits are a centuries-old tradition, seen as living alone in the wilderness in a solitary life devoted to God. According to the Catholic Leader, they are known for a life devoted “to the praise of God and salvation of the world through a stricter separation from the world, the silence of solitude, and assiduous prayer and penance.”

In an email to supporters last week, Matson said, “I live in a hermitage at the top of a wooded hill, which I share with my German Shepherd rescue, Odie, and with the Blessed Sacrament, which was installed in my oratory shortly before Christmas.”

He did not disclose where he lives in Pikeville, but said he is well known in the community for his work with local theater groups.

Most of his days are spent in quiet prayer, and afternoons and evenings are devoted to his theater work. Last year, he performed “Every Brilliant Thing” Duncan McMillan as part of the community’s suicide prevention work.

Could not find religious home as trans man

Matson grew up in Texas and Virginia as a Presbyterian. He attended college at New York University, where he transitioned.

He went to graduate school at Loyola University Maryland.

“It was my first time in a Catholic environment — I was very drawn to the beauty of the liturgy, but also to the Jesuit approach to education, which is care of the whole person, and the sense of Catholic education project in a rich intellectual history.”

Matson went to Oxford University in England to study theology, which is where he converted to Catholicism in 2010. But as an openly transgender man, he could not find a religious home.

He was rejected by the Jesuits and other orders for being transgender. He became a Benedictine oblate, a lay person associated with a monastery. But he still wanted to work with other artists and LGBTQ people who wanted to practice their faith within the Church and could not find a path.

Finally, a friend connected him to Bishop John Stowe, who was known for his outreach to the LGBTQ community. In a speech he gave in 2022, he said: “I believe that my first words to you and to the LGBT community in the church must be the same: ‘I love you.’”

Stowe was unavailable to speak to the Herald-Leader. But he told Religion News Service: “My willingness to be open to him is because it’s a sincere person seeking a way to serve the church. Hermits are a rarely used form of religious life … but they can be either male or female.

“Because there’s no pursuit of priesthood or engagement in sacramental ministry, and because the hermit is a relatively quiet and secluded type of vocation, I didn’t see any harm in letting him live this vocation.”

Matson said that Stowe has been an inspiration to him as a religious leader.

“He wants to preach the Gospel regardless of consequences,” Matson said.

“He’s trying to serve the church by saying things about care for creation, care for immigrants, care for the LGBTQ community. He preaches it whether or not it’s politically palatable. I’m so inspired by his courage and his love for Christ and the church and the Gospel.”

Vatican allows baptism, becoming godparent

Pope Francis has slowly created more tolerance for LGBTQ Catholics, although same-sex marriage is still forbidden. Last year, the Vatican said it was allowed under certain circumstances, for transgender people to be baptized as Catholics and serve as godparents.

Matson believes he is the first openly transgender person in his position in the church. So, will there be consequences from the Vatican for Brother Christian and Bishop Stowe?

“I would hope not,” said Stan “JR” Zerkowski, the director of the Lexington Diocese’s LGBTQ ministry and the author of “Coming Out and Coming Home: A Gay Catholic Man’s Journey from Marginalization to Ministry, with a Few Miracles Along the Way.”

“I think this is an incredibly positive step for dialogue in the church and for transgender people to witness to their faith in heroic ways,” Zerkowski said.

“I think Brother Christian is heroic — the church has neither spoken kindly nor been kind to transgender people, and he still views service to the Lord and to the church as something far greater than something that would cause most people to back down. That’s heroic faith.”

Zerkowski was thrilled Matson made his announcement on Pentecost.

“People said, ‘The Apostles are drunk, they’re crazy, they’re speaking in languages people don’t understand,’” he said.

“It’s almost as if a new Pentecost is being called for in the Church. Brother Christian is asking them to speak a new language of love, and not just toward transgender people but a new language of love that transgender people have for the church.

“If that’s not the Holy Spirit that has prompted this entire thing, then quite frankly, I’m in the wrong business.”

Zerkowski believes Matson’s story is a perfect example of how God works in incredibly powerful ways.

“One of the powerful ways is to see this humble servant of the Lord living in Eastern Kentucky, not looking for fanfare but wanting to say this is who I am, this is how the Lord inspired me, and this is my gift to the Church … myself. And he’s asking the church to do two things — can you accept my gift, and can you accept the gift of people like me who want to gift themselves. Can the church understand this new language of love?”

‘Both trying to serve the Gospel’

Matson said he hopes that anyone who is concerned about him would come to him or Bishop Stowe and talk to them.

“We’re both trying to serve the Gospel,” he said. “I hope they would say, let’s see how we can incorporate your vocation and mission to the church in a way that helps witness all the children God has created in their complexity,” he said.

Most of all, he wants his story will resonate with others who have been rejected by the Church.

“My No. 1 hope is that other trans people in the church who want to have a relationship with it look at my story and say oh there’s hope for someone in the church to understand me,” he said.

“If I’m correct that it’s OK to be trans and Catholic, then the church will come to that conclusion because it will be led by the Holy Spirit in all truth,” he said.

“If I’m wrong, then I pray God shows me I’m wrong. I have confidence that God will continue to lead the church into the fullness of truth. … If my theological position is true, then the church will eventually get there.”