This week, the world learned it lost a deeply tormented musical artist in Sinead O’Connor.
That she was talented, few can argue.
Her performance of Prince’s “Nothing Compares to U,” was nominated for four Grammy awards in 1990.
I was a senior in high school that year, and it is one of the pieces of pop culture that most represents to me that time in my life.
But above and beyond that hit, she had a courageous voice, and sadly, that voice contributed to her being trapped in an existence of controversy, child abuse and mental illness.
Sinead was 56 when she died, but she will be remembered most for her 1992 performance of Bob Marley’s “War” on Saturday Night Live. At the end of the song, she ripped a picture of Pope John Paul II in half, and proclaimed “Fight the real enemy!” The audience responded with stunned silence.
To go on the most watched weekend nighttime shows, and tear up a picture of the leader of the Catholic Church in front of millions of viewers is not something for the fainthearted.
She would later explain her act was intended to shine a light on decades of clerical abuse of children that was just beginning to be made public, as well as the broad cover-up that took place in various sections of the church.
In the aftermath, she experienced profound scorn and defamation, particularly in the United States, and this would follow her for the rest of her life. Many wrote her off as “crazy.”
In 2023, 31 years after the Saturday Night Live incident, the Illinois Attorney General released a report on its five year-study of Catholic Clergy Child Sex Abuse in Illinois. The report chronicles abuse claims going back to the early- to mid- 1900s in dioceses around the state.
Like most others, I was shocked initially and offended by her action. I had been raised Catholic, and although my intentional spiritual journey would begin a few years after that, I was unwilling and unable to separate my personal understanding and faith in God from my allegiance to the Church structure.
It is difficult for people to acknowledge the tradition they adhere to can, like all human systems, be corrupt, especially when they are taught not to question authority. Sometimes it takes a lifetime, or more, for people to separate the Ultimate Reality, which is always and only Love, from the people and structures that claim to represent it, while causing great harm and suffering.
In a performance at Madison Square Garden shortly after the Saturday Night Live incident, Kris Kristofferson introduced O’Connor as “an artist whose name has become synonymous with courage and integrity.”
The audience greeted her with loud boos. Eventually, Kristofferson comforted her and escorted her off the stage. In 2009 he released a song in reference to the Saturday Night Live controversy, called “Sister Sinead.”
There’s humans entrusted with guarding our gold And humans in charge of the saving of souls And humans responded all over the world Condemning that bald headed brave little girl And maybe she’s crazy and maybe she ain’t But so was Picasso and so were the saints And she’s never been partial to shackles or chains She’s too old for breaking and too young to tame It’s askin’ for trouble to stick out your neck In terms of a target a big silhouette But some candles flicker and some candles fade And some burn as true as my sister Sinead And maybe she’s crazy and maybe she ain’t But so was Picasso and so were the saints And she’s never been partial to shackles or chains She’s too old for breaking and too young to tame
O’Connor lived an embattled life. She suffered abuse at the hands of her mother and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Just a few years ago, her son died of suicide.
On July 17, she posted on her Twitter account about his death.
“Been living as undead night creature since. He was the love of my life, the lamp of my soul. We were one soul in two halves. He was the only person who ever loved me unconditionally. I am lost in the bardo without him.”
Her account has since been deleted.
It is strange how once one of our human brothers or sisters departs this world, we are able to see their lives with much more clarity and compassion, than we were able or willing to offer while they were alive.
O’Connor’s live television act all those years ago was designed to startle and shock. She was calling out decades of destruction by a trusted religious structure. There was no other way to get the message across to the country and the world than to do something that would startle and shock.
Wherever you are now, Sinead, I offer my apology for not listening to you, for not wanting to believe you were telling a truth too hard to bear.
Even more, I offer my apology to the thousands and thousands of boys and girls whose suffering at the hands of religious figures (not just within the Catholic Church) was harder to acknowledge than it was to kill the messenger.
SPIRIT MATTERS is a weekly column that examines experiences common to the human spirit. Contact Jerrilyn Zavada Novak at firstname.lastname@example.org to share how you engage your spirit in your life and community.