“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.
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“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.”