Q & A With Religious Studies Professor David C. Prejsnar

The Vanguard had the opportunity to speak with Religious Studies Professor, Professor David C. Prejsnar. He was willing to answer a few questions that I had concerning the religious, as well as the historical significance about to occur during the papal visit. Prof. David C. Prejsnar is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History, Philosophy and Religious Studies, and is the Coordinator of the Religious Studies Program at the College.  Besides teaching the courses in Religious Studies he teaches courses on Japanese and Chinese history and culture, and Humanities 101 and 102.  His field of research is East Asian religion and history. He is also currently co-director, with his colleague Prof. Lakshmi Gudipati, of the College’s grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to introduce aspects of South Asian culture into the curriculum.


Pope Francis is scheduled to hold a mass at the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul on September 26th, this is to be a private mass with only members of the church present. For those who are not entirely familiar with the catholic religion what usually takes place during this important ceremony? What is its significance for the papal visit to Philadelphia? Is there a reason why this particular mass is being held privately?   


The Mass, also known as the Eucharist or The Lord’s Supper, is the central ritual of Christianity. It is practiced by most groups of Christians, although with important differences. It is held to go back to the so-called “Last Supper” that Jesus had with his disciples before he was arrested, and executed by the Roman authorities. During what was probably a Passover Seder meal, commemorating the exodus of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, Jesus is supposed to have taken the unleavened bread, and said “This is my body, broken for you.”  He says something similar regarding the wine and his blood.  He urges his disciples to repeat this action and meal, in remembrance of him. Christians trace this ritual back to the Last Supper, and in receiving the bread and wine are commemorating what they see as the saving death and resurrection of Jesus. Over the centuries in the different Christian churches the form of the ritual underwent many changes. Therefore, for Catholics in this area to have the head of their church perform this central ritual here is very significant.


One important difference among Christians regards how they understand the presence of Jesus Christ in the bread and the wine. Catholic and Orthodox Christians believe that Christ is present concretely in the bread and the wine, there is an actual change in the bread and the wine during the ritual. This is change is often called “transubstantiation.” Protestant Christians reject this view, and see Christ as symbolically present in the bread and wine.

I would not use the term “private” to describe the Mass that will be celebrated on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. It will be a public event, and those with tickets will be able to get somewhat close to the Pope. But most Christian denominations exclude those from other Christian groups from receiving Communion. So anyone can attend the Papal service but only Catholics, or other Christians belonging to  Christian churches ‘in communion’ with Roman Catholicism, are expected to go up to receive the communion.


Considering the fact that there hasn’t been a papal visit since 1979 the excitement expressed by the media is understandable. Is it a rare occurrence for the Pope to leave their homeland to travel around to different places? Is it common for the Pope to attend events similar to ‘The World Meeting of Families’?


Today, the situation of a Pope traveling throughout the world is not rare. However, this is a relatively recent phenomenon. In the Renaissance the Popes ruled an area of Italy called the “Papal States.” At times his territory was conquered by other political figures, such as Napoleon who in 1809 annexed the Papal States and arrested the Pope. In 1870 the Papal States were absorbed into other Italian states, and the Pope became a voluntary prisoner in the Vatican. It was Pope Paul VI in the 1960’s and 1970’s who first began making many trips outside of Italy. He was the first Pope to visit the U.S. Pope Francis will be the fourth Pope to visit the U.S. and the second to visit Philadelphia. So it is somewhat rare but not unprecedented. When it was announced that the 2015 World Meeting of Families would be held in Philadelphia, it was expected that the Pope would attend, since previous Popes had usually attend the previous meetings.


There have also been some of those who say that the excitement has been over exaggerated and that the measures taken by the city are too inconvenient for the public. There has been a lot of worry over the difficulties it will present to those wanted to travel in the ‘pope zone’, and worry for the businesses also in that area. If they are able to safely, would you recommend for people to go to the events happening our city during the papal visit despite these inconvenience?  


I am not really an expert on issues of safety and large public gatherings, so I really would rather not give a recommendation. It does appear that the city, state and other agencies are working very hard to make it a safe and successful event for what will be a large crowd. It will be a very important and moving event for many of the people who do go. There are also events happening in the city in conjunction with the visit that people can see before or after the visit, such as exhibits of rare sacred writings at both the Free Library, and the University Museum at Penn. The College, of course, will be closing at 4pm on Thursday Sept. 24 and reopening on Monday Sept. 28 at 1:30 pm, so there will be no classes between those times.


Although it has not had as much media attention as the papal visit, the Dalai Lama will also be visiting Philadelphia a month after the Pope. He will be here to receive the 2015 Liberty Medal, which is given to individuals “who strive to secure the blessings of liberty to people around the globe.” In your opinion, why do you think his visit has had much less media attention than the papal visit which is only a month earlier?


That is an interesting question. I think there are probably many reasons why the Papal visit is drawing more attention, and will draw a larger crowd than the visit of the Dalai Lama. But probably the main reason is demographics. The figures vary depending on which survey one uses, but the most recent figures say that between 75-80% of Americans identify themselves as Christian. Catholics make up about 25% of the population of the U.S., with many of them concentrated on the East Coast. By contrast, one recent survey put the percent of Buddhists in the U.S. at about 1.2%.  And there are many branches and divisions in Buddhism, just like Christianity. The Dalai Lama belongs to one of these associated with Tibet and surrounding areas, although he is often looked up to and respected by most Buddhists. This probably accounts for some of the difference. Having said this, I hear from a number of my colleagues at LaSalle University, where he will speak, that the tickets there are all gone. I think he will draw a large crowd, and there will be a good deal of media coverage. Receiving the Liberty Medal is a great honor.


Many faithful Catholics have expressed their joy over the papal visit over social media and many new channel reports. Their excitement is understandable, and this event seems to be turning out to not only be a religious occasion, it also seems like history is once again taking place in our city of brotherly love. What would you say about the historical significance of the Pope coming to Philadelphia?   


It is difficult to say what is the historical significance, that may only become clearer in the future. However, many people around the world, and in the U.S., have responded very positively to the somewhat more liberal and open message that Pope Francis has seemed to project. His background in Argentina shows that he has a strong identification with Catholic teachings on social justice. So three events and aspects of his visit might bear watching, and I will be asking students in some of my Religious Studies classes to pay attention of these items. First, Pope Francis is planning on visiting one of the Philadelphia prisons. It will be interesting to see what comments, if any, he makes on the American prison and criminal justice system, and how these are received by the American public and politicians.

Second, one of his major addresses will be in immigration. Clearly immigration is a key issue at the moment in both Europe with the influx of refugees from Syria, and in the United States with the Presidential campaigns. Again, it will be fascinating to see what he says and the response among Americans and Presidential candidates. Recently, Catholics have become one of the most important swing votes in Presidential elections, so there could be significant political implications. Finally, three weeks after the Pope visits Philadelphia, there will be a Synod on the Family in the Vatican with many of the leading bishops from around the world, including the archbishop from Philadelphia. New reports have speculated on tensions between Pope Francis and more conservative leaders in the Catholic church, including American bishops, over issues such as the status of gays within the church. His visit and the Synod may indicate the direction of the Catholic church in the future.


Hopefully with the visit of the Pope and the Dalai Lama it will help inspire the people of Philadelphia to want to learn more about different religions and their effects around the world. If someone wanted to take classes at CCP to learn more which classes would you recommend to them?


The Department of History, Philosophy and Religious Studies at Community College of Philadelphia offers a wide variety of courses dealing with Religion and religious traditions from across the globe.  For example, some of the courses students can take are  World Religions (RS 151/Phil 151), Religion in American History (RS 170 / Hist 170), Introduction to Religion (RS 101), and Philosophy of Religion (RS 152 / Phil 152). We also offer Religions of the Middle East focusing on Judaism, Christianity and Islam (RS 175) and Asian Religions (RS 180.)  Religious Studies courses meet a variety of General Education requirements. Another useful feature is that Religious Studies courses (except RS 152) can fulfill either the Humanities or Social Science requirement. We also offer a Religious Studies major for students who are interested in transferring to a four-year institution with a major in religion or theology, or interested in majors such as history, philosophy or anthropology. Anybody interested in finding out more about our Religious Studies courses or the Religious Studies Major can email me at [email protected] or can stop by my office to chat in BR-25A.

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