Traveling around the world, often as an unofficial emissary for peace, the Rev. Raymond G. Helmick went wherever conflicts lay unresolved — from the Catholic and Protestant divide in Northern Ireland, to the historic disputes between Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East, and to Belgrade, where he helped negotiate the release of US soldiers who were held captive in the late 1990s.
His message was as simple to express as it was difficult for many he worked with to embrace. “You have to de-demonize the enemy,” he told the Globe in 2007. “If you don’t get around to understanding the humanity of the enemy, you don’t resolve the conflict.”
Words and their nuances were important, he believed. As a teacher at Boston College, “most of my courses deal with conflict transformation,” he said in 2008 during a New England Jesuits Oral History Program interview that is posted on his website. “I’ve learned to prefer that term to conflict resolution. What it means is that you can deal with a conflict, but you can’t really fix everything. What you can do is help people relate to each other.”
Father Helmick, who taught in BC’s School of Theology and Ministry and who was invited to the White House in 1993 for the signing of the peace accord between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, died of cancer April 21 in the Campion center in Weston. He was 84 and in recent years had divided his time between St. Mary’s Hall at BC and the rectory of St. Theresa of Avila Church in West Roxbury where his younger brother, Monsignor William M. Helmick, is pastor.
“Raymond, as idealistic and as kind as he was, had a profound understanding of the human condition,” his brother wrote in a homily. “He knew that good people sometimes do bad things, and he worked patiently with anyone to steer them away from evil and in the direction of goodness, justice, and peace.”
Father Helmick was a founder of the US Interreligious Committee for Peace in the Middle East. Among his companions in peace efforts was the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who wrote a tribute that was posted on Father Helmick’s website a few days after his death.
“A man of strength of character, non-negotiable dignity, with a fine, tender heart, Father Raymond Helmick never stopped searching and working for peace,” Jackson wrote. “We traveled the world together, to Syria, Lebanon, the former Yugoslavia, and other places haunted by war and despair. I learned so much from him. Much of my worldview, my belief and hope in reconciliation beyond gender and race and religion come from Father Helmick.”
Father Helmick’s resume reads like a who’s who and where’s where of conflicts in the 20th century’s final decades. His peace missions included working with the Kurds in Iraq, traveling to East Timor, and spending time in Rhodesia as it became Zimbabwe. He also helped mediate the end of a hunger strike at the Maze Prison in Northern Ireland in the early 1980s.
In the Middle East, he had by his own accounting “extensive contacts, by visits and correspondence” with PLO leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli leaders such as Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Shamir, Yitzhak Rabin, and Ehud Barak. In the United States, he kept State Department officials in the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama apprised of his peacemaking work and travels.
In Boston, “as the Islamic community was mistrusted in its effort to construct a mosque in Roxbury, Father Helmick led in the effort toward its construction and toward the full inclusion of a Muslim presence in the Greater Boston Ecumenical and Interfaith community,” Rodney L. Petersen of the Boston University School of Theology wrote in a tribute that is posted online.
Father Helmick was “a good example of how there’s no limit to the amount of good you can do if you don’t care who gets the credit. He was not a self-promoting person,” his brother said in an interview.
That extended to Father Helmick’s hands-on work at his brother’s West Roxbury church, where he built an ornate tabernacle for inside the sanctuary and created a mosaic, depicting the healing miracles of Jesus, which fills a wall in the pavilion above the wheelchair ramp. “I told him to put his name on that,” his brother said, adding with a chuckle, “but I’m the youngest of the family, you know, so his name isn’t there. That’s the way he lived his life. He never was obsessed about himself. He was interested in doing good.”
A musician who was proficient on keyboard instruments, Father Helmick learned woodworking at the end of the 1960s while engaged in graduate studies at Union Theological Seminary in New York. “I was playing Bach on a piano,” he told the Boston College Chronicle in 2001. “I knew that I needed a harpsichord, and the only way I could get one was to build one.”
The second of three children, Father Helmick was born and grew up in Arlington. His father, Raymond, was a Royal Typewriter Co. salesman. His mother, the former Alice Clancy, was a homemaker and the daughter of Irish immigrants.
Father Helmick went to St. Agnes School in Arlington and graduated in 1949 from Boston College High School. “I had a piano scholarship to the New England Conservatory. I was also very interested in architecture,” he said in the oral history, adding with a laugh: “Then, at the last minute, I decided to go into the Jesuits instead.”
He twice entered the Jesuit novitiate at Shadowbrook in the Berkshires, the first time on his 18th birthday in September 1949. He left after being diagnosed with an ulcer, and then re-applied and returned in 1951.
He received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in philosophy from Weston College and taught at St. George’s College in Jamaica. Then he moved to Germany to study theology at Sankt Georgen in Frankfurt before being ordained a priest in 1963. Father Helmick taught in Connecticut and Jamaica, did doctoral studies in New York, and worked for human rights organizations in London and Washington, D.C., before becoming an instructor at BC in 1984. He also wrote and edited several books.
“He wanted students to know that there’s a role for person-to-person contact,” said Stephen J. Pope, a theology professor at Boston College who had chaired the department while Father Helmick taught there.
Pope added that Father Helmick would humanize the opposing sides of disputes by telling stories “that would help students to understand peacemaking. When he told stories of both sides of a conflict, students would get beyond the good guys-bad guys narrative that’s often told.”
A service has been held for Father Helmick, who in addition to his brother leaves a sister, Marie Barry of Peabody
“He had an unusual combination of being very gentle, but also fearless,” Pope said.
“We think of courage as loud and aggressive. He wasn’t at all. He was very gentle, and students appreciated that. He was someone people cold talk to.”
The appeal of Father Helmick “was that if we really are humble in our faith, and have this empathic ethic, we’ll see our commonalities,” said Pope, who added that “the primary value he exemplified to me was humility, because humility isn’t humiliation, it’s openness to the truth that we don’t want to hear. He really embodied humility.”Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.