On October 3, 1992, the world watched in shock as Irish singer Sinead O’Connor made a daring and unforgettable gesture on Saturday Night Live (SNL). During her performance, she tore up a photograph of Pope John Paul II, sparking a firestorm of controversy and outrage. Decades later, the true story behind this pivotal moment sheds light on O’Connor’s intentions and the personal struggles that drove her to take a stand on live television.
A Last-Minute Change: From Loretta Lynn to Bob Marley
As the musical guest on SNL, Sinead O’Connor had planned to perform an a cappella rendition of Loretta Lynn’s “Success Has Made a Failure of Our Home.” However, just before her second performance, she made a last-minute request to switch to Bob Marley’s powerful song, “War.” O’Connor wanted to use her platform to bring attention to the issue of child abuse and requested a close-up, single-camera shot to highlight her closing gesture with a photograph of a starving child. Music coordinator John Zonars recalls that her performance during the dress rehearsal deeply moved the crew, resonating with the heartfelt plea to protect vulnerable children worldwide.
O’Connor’s manager informed Zonars that she would be performing “War” instead of the planned “Scarlet Ribbons,” and the performance would be filmed with a single camera for a more intimate connection with the audience.
“We were all moved by O’Connor’s song and gesture in dress rehearsal when she held up the planned photo and made a heartfelt plea to protect the world’s vulnerable children.”
A Bold and Controversial Act: Tearing Up the Pope’s Picture
As O’Connor delivered an impassioned performance of “War,” her voice filled with passion and emotion. After the song’s powerful finale, she raised a photograph of Pope John Paul II to the camera and, with unwavering determination, tore it up. Her words, “Fight the real enemy,” were a clear challenge to the Catholic Church and its handling of sexual abuse cases. The reaction was swift and fierce, with NBC inundated with calls of condemnation from outraged viewers.
SNL creator Lorne Michaels recognized the gravity of the moment, describing it as “the bravest possible thing she could do.” He acknowledged O’Connor’s troubled personal history with child abuse and her deep knowledge of the church’s cover-up of such cases.
The Fallout: Mixed Reactions and Personal Struggles
The aftermath of O’Connor’s provocative act was intense. Backstage, a stunned and appalled cast and crew retreated, leaving the singer to face the consequences alone. Her manager even locked himself away for days. At a later New York concert, O’Connor faced a divided audience’s response, with some cheering and others booing. Despite the mixed reactions, SNL creator Lorne Michaels recognized the courage in her action, acknowledging her personal history with child abuse and the church’s cover-up of such cases. He called her act “the bravest possible thing she could do.”
O’Connor’s 2021 memoir Rememberings reflects on that night, describing how she was greeted with eerie silence backstage and how her own manager distanced himself for days, overwhelmed by the controversy.
Watch Sinead O’Connor tore a Picture of the Pope on ‘SNL’ below: