KEITH and I, we’re mates from way back, I’ll have you know. A man steadfast and true. A man I could unfailingly rely on. Every time I called at his home, his enclave with its own chapel, up by Church Hill, he’d have his housekeeper Theresa Muldoon traipse into the lounge with a KitKat and cuppa.
This time, though, home-made gingerbread. Well, I should have expected things to be different - it’s my first visit since the Pope promoted him to cardinal a year ago today. I’ve been swanning around town telling folk that I knew Keith Patrick Joseph O’Brien when he was a mere Archbishop (of St Andrews and Edinburgh).
So how does it feel now he is one of the Vatican’s chosen people, one of the 150 cardinal members of what’s being termed "the most exclusive club in the world"? Has the past year made a new man of him, an altogether different being?
He is in his carpet slippers and, as ever, laid back. There can be no more laid-back cardinal anywhere on the planet, I guarantee.
"I’ve felt my increased responsibilities," he tells me. "There are more places to visit now, Africa particularly, although our diocese has had links with the so-called Dark Continent for more than 40 years. I’ve been to Rwanda and the Congo and I’m bound for Ethiopia in February."
So he is upwardly mobile, minding the Church’s business. Keith is not the kind of bloke to forget about Pilton and Wallyford, though, so we shouldn’t worry unduly.
Dodgy venturing into the Congo, you can pick up creepy things there. Things that’ll strike you down. And he could be struck down, cardinal or no. The man’s mortal, like the rest of us.
"Aye, who’s to know!" he says. "Other-wise, I like to think that my appointment has made no difference to me as a person. I have the same friends, I do the same sort of things. Today and yesterday I’ve been visiting secondary schools.
"I’ve still got to run my diocese. I keep my feet on the ground. I was over in Fife, in my robes, at a school in Oakley where a primary two pupil stuck her hand up and pleaded: ‘Oh, Mr Cardinal, can I ask you about your hat?’
"And knocking on the door of a house-bound woman, I had this wifie greet me with: ‘Come in, Admiral O’Brien’.
"You see, I’m just the same person. Doing my day job."
Does Mr Cardinal have a mind for the political scene as the man in the street knows it?
"I think the Scottish Chancellor of the Exchequer has done well up to now. I hope he’ll balance the budget well enough to put more into schools, hospitals and pensions.
"I’ve voted since I was 18. One of my most crucial votes will be in the Sistine Chapel to pick the next Pope and it’ll be an honour to be the first Scottish cardinal to vote in a conclave since Cardinal [Gordon] Gray.
"There was no conclave when Cardinal [Thomas] Winning [of Glasgow] held that office."
Keith is 66. Might the day job, in time, take a toll on his health? Has he had the flu jab? Does he diet? I’d observed he had resisted a second slice of gingerbread.
"I’m getting the jab this week," he says. "My GP’s in Portobello, with a surgery in Craigmillar. I take blood pressure pills." Don’t we all at our age?
It was Friday. Gingerbread day in this household, apparently. But shouldn’t Catholics always eat fish on Fridays? This inquisition, understand, was being conducted - a mite irreverently some resolutely righteous readers may be thinking - by a seriously-lapsed Protestant. So seriously, I’ve probably been ex-communicated.
THEY never tell you. And I’ve never been able to talk to Church of Scotland clergy (apart from Jack Kellett who ministered at dear old South Leith Kirk) the way I do to Keith and the priesthood, some of whom appreciate a fair old swallie. The C of S wants to put the fear of God into you.
Mind you, I like to think I know where to draw the line. I wouldn’t ask if he got a pay rise when the Pope presented him with the trademark red biretta (the ritualistic red hat, not an automatic weapon). Much too vulgar.
Keith confesses he does a lot of eating out. "I’m treated to nice buffets or sandwiches or nibbles on my rounds. I do relish a good plate of fish and chips. If I’ve eaten I’ll get home, my housekeeper gone for the night, and make myself cheese on toast or grill a bit of bacon, then switch on the telly."
Likes his home comforts, does Keith. Celibate, of course. One helluva sacrifice, surely?
"I made that decision when I was ordained as a priest at 27, fully aware that would be my state for life. As I perpetually help married couples to be faithful, so am I to the vows I’ve taken.
"Besides, the way I and most priests lead their lives, it wouldn’t be fair on a wife and children."
Talking sacrifices, to some men the ultimate one, how about the current Pope? Isn’t it a crying shame for the poor bloke? He’s all of 84 and every time we see him he looks and sounds thoroughly knackered.
He’s done his bit. Surely it’s time he is allowed to hang up his pontifical clobber and staff, sit back and enjoy his remaining few years in the glen of tranquillity?
Keith does not concur. "In previous centuries other Popes were like John Paul II in old age. Even older, even more frail. Every single audience held in St Peter’s Square is recorded and scrutinised, and basically if he felt he couldn’t do the job he would go of his own accord. You and I know he can do it, only not as sprightly.
"Age catches up but you don’t give them a wee injection and put them down. From the moment of conception to the last you dedicate yourself. That’s what we are taught. I’d like to think the Catholic Church shows respect to a Pope as an old man as it does in his relative youth."
There weren’t many young priests about in these parts last time we wheeled out the KitKats. And nuns were packing it in. He couldn’t rightly recall that dearth.
"There’s no desperate shortage today. There are still a lot of young people coming forward to be priests or nuns. The situation’s no better, no worse. But more lay people are aware of the Catholic Church’s situation now, more are volunteering to help in their parishes."
OFTEN, when we read the papers or watch TV, the world’s a frightening place. The daily news can be depressing - so much crime, near-empty churches. While the cardinal agrees and he recognises a lack of law and order, he was by no means despondent. I’ve yet to see him on a downer.
"We could easily over-dramatise things. We are setting goals for the re-Christianisation of Scotland. It’s encouraging to see local authorities supporting cribs and nativity scenes. We are a Christian country and have been since 397 when St Ninian landed at Whithorn, in Galloway." Let’s see . . . 397. That would be a few years before Hibs won the Scottish Cup. Speaking of which, the local derby’s at Tynecastle on Sunday.
Could His Eminence say a wee prayer for the Hibees? I mean, it’s worked in the past. "I’ll see what I can do," he laughs.
Long aware of my irreligious rantings, would he, perchance, do the honours for me when my pen runs dry? And is he cheap?
He would, indeed. "I’ve a rough idea of what I’d say at your funeral . . . I’ve enjoyed the late JG’s company over the past 20 years. Always a man whom I could trust and we’ve struck up a lot of friendships."
"And I hope he’s gone up rather than down. But if he’s gone down I hope there’s more water about than he can ever put in his whisky."
Before leaving him to tend his flock of three-quarters of a million Catholics in Scotland, as his secretary Norah Magennis helps me on with my coat at the door, I have one final question for the Gingerbread Cardinal.
"Seriously, is there any hope for me? You know, with the Grim Reaper." A reassuring hand on my shoulder. "I think you could be in with a chance."