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Sinead O'Connor's Catholic journey: the worst of both worlds

Updated: Feb 28

Sinead O'Connor dressed as a priest

In October 1996 I found myself in a seminar group with Sinead O’Connor, my name then was O’Neill and the alphabet had lumped us together long before any other identity group had a chance to.

I was looking forward to hearing what she had to contribute and not at all dreaming about shaving my head, becoming her best friend and meeting Prince, but I never saw her again after that first week. Like so many times before and since, the ever-restless heart changed route.

I never kept up with her work, but from time to time I would read about something shocking she had said or done. She frequently spoke out on issues of rights, racism, child abuse, religion and feminism and she was clearly a deeply damaged, troubled person desperately seeking stability and truth. If it was Galilee circa 31 she would have recognised truth and found the rest that she so rightly longed for. But she was unable to recognise that which is “the same yesterday, today and forever” in the short span of time between 8 th December 1966 and 26th July 2023.

That Christ was not clearly revealed to her through the Church which He established is something that should give us pause. After being ordained a fake priest in 1999, O’Connor (still restless) moved on again and converted to Islam, calling it “the natural conclusion of any intelligent theologians’ journey”, but her was not an intelligent theologian.

Sinead O'Connor's ignorance of Catholicism was staggering, and she had been badly let down by those tasked with feeding the sheep. She was a woman crying out in agony and hearing no adequate response from the Church of her cradle. A failing which Cardinal Ratzinger spoke of as he reflected on Jesus’ own agony; “…think of how much Christ suffers in his own church. How often the holy sacrament of his Presence is abused…how often we celebrate only ourselves, without even realising that he is there. How often his Word is twisted and misused. What little faith is present behind so many theories, so many empty words. How much filth there is in the Church, and even among those who, in the priesthood, ought to belong entirely to him. How much pride, how much self-complacency?”

What O’Connor lived through was the worst of both worlds in the Church; on the one hand a loveless legalism experienced as a rejection of sin and sinner, and on the other a false compassion welcoming both. The pendulum smacked her in the face wherever she stood. It’s no wonder she couldn’t recognise truth, I’m surprised she could stand up.

There are many people like this; broken, hurt, damaged, their relationship with God ruined by the very people charged with safeguarding it. The ripples are far reaching, and it is hard to know what our response should be, the response of those still clinging to the ark.

There is a temptation to jump off, swim away and join these poor damaged people out in the depths. The thing is that they will drown there, and we will drown with them.

Hard as it seems when we are faced with pain, trauma and confusion in our own families, or in the families of those we meet along the way, we need to call them back, throw out a life jacket and keep them safe. We need to reassure them that the ark is the only place to be and bring them in deep, past the drunken sailors on the outside, past those who have fallen asleep at their post, past the lies of those saying, “luxury yachts this way”. We need to draw them deep enough that they see the face of Christ, but we cannot do this if we have not ourselves encountered Him.

This is a journey that Pope Benedict XVI shares in Jesus of Nazareth which he describes as “an expression of my personal search for the face of the Lord”

It seemed to me that Sinead O’Connor spent her life searching for love, but was only ever deceived by a counterfeit.

False love, false compassion, will appease, will leave people where they are and let them drown. It is a comfortable lie, easy to say, easy to hear and easy to accept. Real love is a challenging truth; difficult to speak, difficult to hear and difficult to accept in our fallen world, but the end of one is death and the end of the other is life.

In the words of Pope Benedict XVI: “The world offers you comfort, but you were not made for comfort, you were made for greatness”

Sinead O’Connor was made for a greatness which we all glimpsed in the beauty of her face and voice, but the soil was shallow and when the sun came up she withered.

Eternal rest grant unto her O lord and let perpetual light shine upon her and her son. Amen.

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