CHARLES SEARSON SJ, National Director of the Pioneer Association in Zambia and Malawi, takes a look at the essence of what it means to be a Pioneer, with love of the Sacred Heart at the core of our commitment to temperance and sobriety.
I live in Lusaka the Capital city of Zambia in South Central Africa. Like Ireland, Zambia is a very friendly country and very peaceful. I first came here in 1971 and I now call it my second home. Surrounded by a supportive Jesuit community and loving friends, I am very happy here.
All my life, I had been drinking a very moderate amount of alcohol; one beer twice a week on Fridays and on Sundays in the Jesuit community. I was what I would term, ‘a social drinker’. In 2006, I was talking to the now late Father Paddy Joyce SJ (from Galway) about one of my nephews who had a serious problem with alcohol. He suggested I think about becoming a Pioneer in order to pray for my nephew.
At first I resisted, but later I got interested in the purpose of the Pioneers and I decided to join ‘as a private member’. What I meant was that, as a priest, I had already a large numbers of meetings to attend and I knew I would not have the time or the energy to attend Pioneer meetings. Fr Joyce said: “That’s not a problem: just keep the three basic rules: pray the heroic offering every morning and evening and wear the Pioneer badge and abstain from all alcohol.”
After some more conversations, I agreed and became a Probationary member and, for two years, I wore the Probation badge. Then in 2008, I became a life member. Shortly afterwards, Fr Joyce died in Galway while on home leave. I was also in Ireland at the time on leave. Not long after that, I got an email from the then Jesuit Provincial of the Zambia-Malawi Province asking me if I would be willing to become the National Pioneer Chaplain for Zambia. I happily agreed and that meant a whole new chapter in my life.
Being a ‘young Pioneer’ and new to the job as a National Chaplain, I spoke to a lot of people about the job and did a lot of reading. The most important document I read was ‘the red book’ - the Pioneer Constitution. Through the Internet I managed to buy a copy of The Life of Father James Cullen SJ by Lambert McKenna. I also enjoyed reading some booklets on the Pioneers printed in Zambia by the late Fr Bob Kelly SJ (from Tullamore) and the numerous pamphlets printed by the Pioneer Office in Dublin some of which are available on the Pioneer website www.pioneerassociation.com
In this period of initiation, I remember one important word of advice from my colleague and mentor, Father Barney McGuckian SJ. He said: “Charlie, whatever you do out there in Zambia I know will be good and worthwhile. But please remember the very centre of the Pioneers is the Sacred Heart of Jesus.”
As I teach others in Zambia and Malawi about the Pioneers, I find I have to boil things to their bare essentials based on our Constitutions. This is what I teach:
1. The aim of the Pioneers is to encourage adults to drink moderately. This way of putting things is based on our constitutions which say: ‘The aim of the Pioneers is to promote sobriety.’
2. The centre of the Pioneers is the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It is from the love of Jesus that we get the compassion to reach out to others who suffer from alcohol related harm. The Pioneer, like all Christians, is convinced that the love of God revealed in Jesus, is central to their lives. As a celibate priest, I pray every day the words of Jesus: “As the Father loves me, so I love you. Remain in my love.” (John 15:9). Pioneers need to be on fire with that love. Jesus said: “I have come to bring fire on the earth and how I wish it were blazing already.” There is no point in joining the Pioneers unless one is not only on fire with the love of Jesus but is willing to set Ireland, Zambia and anywhere else on fire with that love calling people and society to conversion in the area of alcohol consumption.
3. Praying the Pioneer Heroic Offering Prayer each morning and each evening, both in the privacy of one’s home and at meetings, is an essential part of our Pioneer spirituality. Members who are far longer in the Association than me tell me that when Pioneer members drop out it is nearly always true to say that they stopped praying the Heroic Offering long before they left the Association.
As a form of variety I often encourage our members, if the group is small, to pause after the “I” in the prayer and going around the circle each member mentions their name. “… and for the conversion of excessive drinkers I, Charles Searson ...” or “I, John Mulenga … will abstain for life from all intoxicating drinks. Amen.”
4. Wearing the Badge: Our Constitution is very clear that Pioneer members are invited to wear their ‘pin’ all day, every day. I think this is a brilliant insight from Father Cullen. I make a point of always wearing my badge no matter how often I change a coat or a shirt. As it gets hot in Zambia in the course of the day, I have to peel off two or three layers of clothes. On each one I have a badge! The purpose is very modern: communication and identification. So many people stop me and ask what the badge stands for? Others are members that I don’t know, but they come up and introduced themselves. In Zambia if I meet a member without a badge I say: “You owe me one Kwacha.” It’s a joke because one Kwacha is worth ten cents. But it works! We import 100’s of badges from Ireland trying to keep ahead of the demand.
Imagine my shock then when I came to Ireland this year. In the course of three months, during which I visited Dublin, Rosslare, Waterford, Limerick, Tipperary and Kildare, I only found five members with badges and two of them were priests!
I asked myself, in Ireland, what has happened to the Pioneers? Are we ashamed of our badge? Are we ashamed of the Sacred Heart of Jesus? Are we ashamed of our Association? It seems to me we are. In a culture where less people go to church and where a good number drink to excess we might think of ourselves as ‘old fashioned’ or ‘out of date’. But, in fact, faith in Jesus Christ is needed more than ever – all around the world - and our message of abstinence for our members and moderation for adult drinkers is needed now more than ever.
Someone said to me that maybe the Pioneer badge should be modernised. I would have no problem with a new, more contemporary design. In fact, I will give prizes to the best three alternative designs.
5. The Pioneers and Education: it is clear from our Constitution that one of the important tasks of each Pioneer centre is and I quote, ‘visit the local schools.’ What we find in Zambia is that visits to schools can only be done by people who are vetted and trained. Research shows that a once off visit to a school, no matter how brilliant, achieves absolutely nothing. What does ‘bear fruit’ (John 15) is six visits to a secondary school following a boy or a girl from first year to sixth year.
We encourage Pioneer members in Zambia, as part of our education programmes, to do research on alcohol related harm both nationally and internationally. In our national office we have available reports by the World Health Organisation on drinking patterns in Zambia, Ireland and throughout the world.
It is my conviction that if the Pioneer Association in Ireland and internationally can work all five of these points in a consistent and co-ordinated fashion we can, once again, be worthy of the name we bear and set the world on fire!