Twenty-four hours a day Fr Jeronimo Flamenco-Castillo is on call, ready to assist God in shepherding the sick and dying to the other side.
It is a journey he has witnessed often over the past two years in his role as Catholic Chaplain of Royal Perth Hospital, where about 25 per cent of patients admitted identify themselves as Roman Catholic.
When he started his journey to priesthood Fr Jeronimo never thought he would find himself working as a hospital chaplain.
Taking up an invitation from then-Archbishop Barry Hickey to study at St Charles’ seminary in Perth, he travelled from his home country, the Republic of El Salvador (which translates in English to the Republic of the Savior) in May 2006.
After spending some time as an assistant priest at Bateman and then St Mary’s Cathedral, it took Fr Jeronimo some time to adjust to his new commitment to the hospital.
“Very often I’ll be deep in sleep when the phone goes. In the beginning I’d say ‘why do people go in the early morning because I don’t want to get up?’ but, after that, it came to my mind, what Jesus is doing is giving a quick end to those who suffer.”
When Fr Jeronimo talks about the suffering he sees, he remembers the moment when he and Mercy Sister Joan Buckham witnessed the death of a 21-year-old patient and describes how the experience touched him deeply.
“When I saw that young girl dying, a tear came from my eye and I started to cry, because sometimes you don’t have enough words to tell the family … the only thing I can tell them is that life is a beautiful gift and a big mystery; we know so well how we came but how we go, no one knows.”
The entire pastoral care team of Geraldine Taylor, Deacon Albert Atkinson, Sr Perpetua Della-Marta and Sr Buckham at Royal Perth Hospital is dedicated to supporting patients and Fr Jeronimo in his role.
Nurses are also involved in the pastoral care process and will contact the duty chaplain to let him know when a patient appears close to death so that the chaplain can visit them.
For Fr Jeronimo, sometimes there are no words to say to a dying person or a family, but he believes just his presence can be enough to help their passing.
“I go to the ear of the dying person and I say, ‘please, you don’t need to be afraid because God is with you and your family is here next to you. And I say to them but if it’s the time to go, God gave you strong wings and you can fly with your wings… go in peace.”
“I say to them I guarantee to you that God only takes the best and you know that you are the best. After that I ask the permission of the family that I will touch the forehead of the dying person and anoint them.”
“[If] the dying person is conscious I offer them Holy Communion but if they are unconscious I offer it to the family… this is really a touching moment in my life when I administer the Sacrament of the Last Rites.”
Each day at the hospital brings a new challenge for Fr Jeronimo and the pastoral team but for them it is a rewarding vocation, one which gives the chance to witness God as a person who suffered for all human kind.
“It’s a big challenge. Not everybody… wants to hear about God, about religion, about the Church. [Some] are angry and I feel many patients are angry at themselves but I tell them ‘don’t worry, I’m just coming to say hello as a friend’,” Fr Jeronimo says.
“Sometimes you can’t use words, but your presence is good enough to be there… they are prisoners in their bed. Sometimes I say hello to them, and just a quick ‘hello’ can make a big difference in their life.”