Sinead and the Pope Pic: In Footsteps of St. Brigid

Article excerpt

Sinead O'Connor rips up a picture of Pope John Paul II on "Saturday Night Live." NBC censors cut the segment from later broadcasts. Joe Pesci, the next host of SNL, says he would have hit O'Connor. She is hissed by rock fans at a Bob Dylan concert; Dylan, once a famous iconoclast, does not defend her. Her record sales fall off. Madonna, whose outrages are not political but commercial, criticizes Sinead. Madonna's sales, presumably, go up. What Sinead did, meanwhile, speaks for itself, a shockingly eloquent symbolic gesture that requires not explanation but response. Here is mine.

The outrage is not that a picture was torn up but that the Catholic Church under this pope's leadership has become so fixed in its position as the enemy of women. The outrage is that Catholicism is an obstacle to peace in Ireland. Because her act so powerfully confronts the church's desperate need for reform and takes the church seriously enough to demand it, I salute this woman.

Sinead O'Connor's rejection of papal authority may seem extreme, but it is tame compared with what another woman did a long time ago. I am thinking of St. Brigid of Sweden, who dared tell the pope to his face that he was going to hell. Brigid lived in the 14th century. She was a fierce critic of the decades-long corruption known as "The Avignon Captivity," one of the low points of church history. Popes became so embroiled in the power politics of feuding French and Italian potentates that the spiritual mission of Catholicism was mortally compromised.

A century and a half before Luther, St. Brigid made a resounding call for church reform. In an elegant Latinism, she was known as "The Admonitrix of Popes." In 1373, she confronted Gregory XI with a vision in which she dared to speak as Christ: "Gregory, why dost thou hate me? ... Thou dost rob Me. of innumerable souls; for almost all who come to thy court dost thou cast into the hell of fire.... Rise up manfully, put on thy strength, and begin to renovate my church which I acquired with my own blood. . . . If thou dost not obey my will, I will cast thee down from the court of heaven, and all the devils of bell shall divide thy soul."

Perhaps so many Irish women are named "Brigid" out of the wish to reclaim such fierce integrity. Certainly it is no accident that Sinead O'Connor is Irish. She displays the fury of the colonized rebelling against an imperial master. Ireland, so famously oppressed by London, is oppressed as well by Rome; witness the church's steady refusal to accommodate pluralism in Ireland, even in the face of the sectarian violence that results. …