Denver, Colo., Sep 14, 2021 / 10:53 am (CNA).
Real-life relationships and a “holy curiosity” must be the basis for Catholic-Muslim dialogue, says a Dominican priest whose college discussions with Muslims after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks strengthened his own faith and set him on a path that took him to Egypt for in-depth academic study of Islam.
“American Catholics must avoid the temptation to reduce Muslims to an abstract,” Father Luke Barder, O.P., told CNA Aug. 26. “I think our charity and the teachings of the Church, particularly from John Paul II and the Second Vatican Council, require us to always maintain the dignity of our partner, even if they are of a different faith, and (to see) that their experiences are real.”
Fr. Barder, who was born in Illinois, joined the Dominicans in 2007 after working at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs. For several years he lived in Cairo and studied Islamic studies and Arabic studies at the Dominican Institute for Oriental studies, receiving a graduate diploma in Islamic Studies from the American University in Cairo. He is now pastor at St. Dominic Catholic Parish in Denver.
Catholic-Muslim dialogue, he said, often raises the same question.
“The question everybody wants to ask is: is dialogue possible?” said Fr .Barder. He likes to use the answer he heard from a friar in Cairo: “No. Not Yet.”
Dialogue presupposes some common encounter or language, he explained.
“The biggest barrier right now between Christians and Muslims has less to do with religion, and more to do about a lot of other things, whether that’s economic, societal, history, etc., and the perceptions that we have of each other,” said Fr. Barder.
“One of the biggest problems is that we think we know who the other is or what they believe but in reality we have zero idea,” he said. “Before we can have substantive dialogue, we first need substantive encounters with each other. That can take a long time. But we’re doing that work.”
He advised Catholics who discuss religion with Muslims “to have the openness and the curiosity – I would call it a ‘holy curiosity’ –about how people experience life, how they hope, and how their faith informs them.”
“It’s not about a matter of who’s right and wrong, at first,” he said. “Before true dialogue and the issues of who’s right and who’s wrong have to happen, we should really not be afraid to encounter one another.”
Fr. Barder’s freshman year of college marked a turning point for his life and the world. On Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists affiliated with al-Qaeda hijacked four planes, attacking the World Trade Towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., with three of them. Passengers regained control of the fourth, United Airlines Flight 93, and diverted it from its intended target. The attacks killed nearly 3,000 people and have had a lasting impact on the U.S. and the world. The American responses included the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, with combined death tolls in the hundreds of thousands.
Up until the Sept. 11 attacks, Fr. Barder said, “I knew what my faith was and what Catholicism was but I rarely met a person of another faith. All of a sudden 9-11 drove this question: ‘what is religion and its role in society’?”
Barder, then a student at Purdue University in Indiana, had an academic interest in religion. However, he particularly benefitted from his participation in a group of Christian and Muslim students through Dialogues International.
“I got to meet a lot of Muslims and learn from them,” he said. “I always attribute my encounter with Dialogues International, particularly the Muslims there, as one of the major reasons I started going back to daily Mass and fell in love with daily prayer and a reverence for the divine, as they talked about it. It was a really beautiful encounter.”
Catholics should approach dialogue with Muslims from the perspective “that there is something to be gained or learned from your partner.” Alluding to Nostra aetate, the Second Vatican Council’s declaration on the Church’s relationship to non-Christian religions, Fr. Barder said, “the Catholic Church will not deny any ray of truth wherever it is found, and seeks to be able to realize what is the impulse of faith.”
“There’s so much more to our faith experience than the simple content of the faith,” he said.
Many Catholics do not necessarily hold their faith because of a particular doctrine, according to Fr. Barder.
“We practice our faith because we have had an encounter with Christ and the sacraments. And that allows us to continue to move forward and ‘pushes’ our faith,” he said. “It is the same on the other side. Their experiences of God, prayer on a daily basis, is the ‘push’ of their faith. That is something that we can certainly begin to see, to start with, and not deny that they’ve had encounters with God because they’re not Christian.”
As Fr. Barder learned through his fellow Dominicans’ encounter with a Cairo man, both Muslims and Catholics have misconceptions about each other, sometimes from a very young age.
“We had a good, good friend who, when he first met us, was deathly afraid to come into our priory,” he said. “His friends and his family discouraged him from coming over to the invitation for dinner, because they thought that Christian monks were witch doctors and practiced devil worship. That was a genuine, palpable fear he had of Christians.”
Fr. Barder encouraged Catholics in the U.S. to have self-awareness about their own cultural context and limitations. Religion is always “incarnated” in a people, and one’s own cultural moment, historical background, and formation means a great deal for how one’s religion is expressed.
“We often align ourselves with identity with religion and faith because it is also so tied to culture and our experience and identity and community. But we have to make sure that we don’t confuse the two wholeheartedly, to say that this community, a temporal expression of Catholicism, is the only way that it can be,” he said.
“The Catholic Church is so much more than what we experience in our parish. There is a greater expression of faith and religion that involves the people, place and culture in which it’s in.” Faith can “transcend all of that and find a variety of expressions.”
As a Latin rite Catholic in Cairo, Fr. Barder was a minority even among Egypt’s Catholics, most of whom are Coptic. For their part, Egyptian Muslims mainly encounter Coptic Orthodox Christians, and this forms how they think of Christianity.
“Muslim expression is as diverse as Catholic expression,” said the Dominican priest. “What we say of Saudi Arabia is not the same thing at all that we would say of Iraq.” In addition to the regional diversity, Islam is split between Sunni and Shia branches.
“We too quickly and easily equate Islam with the Middle East,” he added, noting that the most populous Muslim nation, Indonesia, is in southeast Asia. At the same time, even in the Middle East Islam is going through a unique expression based on the last 50 to 100 years of its history.
“There are many more people of good will than not, and I truly encountered that in Egypt, living among the Muslim population,” said Fr. Barder. “The goodwill that they expressed and offered to me, and the goodwill that the Dominicans there and the Christian community there has offered to their neighbors have been quite impressive. There is a virtue that I encountered there that inspired me to go deeper in my own faith and rely on God even more.”
For Fr. Barder, both the Catholic and Muslim religions impel their adherents to “encounter and encourage the true charity which is inherent in every single human being, because we are created in God’s image.” They also seek to identify reasons “why people lose good will.”
He also acknowledged negative trends. There is a “minority voice” that makes the most notice and even has “the biggest destructive impact.”
“What we have found is that not everybody is of good will,” said Fr. Barder. “In some very dramatic and public ways like the terrorist attacks, the lack of good will towards one’s neighbor, and even our reaction to it at times, has not always been demonstrative of good will.”
Mohamed Atta, considered the ringleader of the Sept. 11 attacks, was from Egypt, though most hijackers were of Saudi Arabian nationality. Atta and several of his collaborators, however, had spent years in Germany and it was there that Atta began to pursue a strict version of Islam and seek out links with al-Qaeda.
Fr. Barder said any discussion of Atta was beyond his expertise, but he noted that some Muslims who commit terrorist acts in Europe were raised in immigrant enclaves there. He worried that the experience of some Muslims living in areas without a large Muslim community can make them feel rejected or lacking in “a sense of dignity or place and identity” that can feed extremism.
Concrete local engagement between Catholics and Muslims is also possible, said Fr. Barder.
“Go and see,” he said. “On a local level organize a group of parishioners and make a visit to a mosque. Invite a Muslim leader or a group to come and speak to you. Everybody loves food. Make a meal. Go and observe. Welcome them to come in.”
He encouraged discussion questions and topics like “what impels your faith? What do you believe? tell me the story of your faith, how it helps you through your day. What are your biggest worries in life?”
“That’s the beginning on a local level,” said Fr. Barder. “For us to be able to foster dialogue, it will only be able to happen on a foundation of mutual respect and friendship.”