A chat with the man upstairs can be an illuminating experience

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Close as I can get to the Almighty. When I’m talking to Cardinal Keith Patrick O’Brien, just the two of us, there’s a presence, as if someone – some spirit – is eavesdropping. As if there’s a hand on my shoulder. I can get carried away, if I’m honest.

Who’d risk being dishonest seated opposite a man of the Church with powerful connections upstairs?

But we are “mates”, if I can be so irreverent. Our paths had barely crossed all year, a hectic one for His Eminence, who was looking spry for his 73 years.

Seventy-four come March 17 (St Patrick’s Day – he and Saint Pat have a cosy arrangement), leaving just a year thereafter until his milestone 75th.

“Tell me, Keith, the cap’s still fitting perfectly. How long can you wear it? Will you be obliged then to retire, to “chuck it’’ and knock on heaven’s door?’’

A broad smile: ‘“I’m in excellent health, thank God. Each cardinal hands in his resignation at 75 but there could be a significant gap after my birthday.’’

He was just back at his desk here at Greenhill Gardens. Another year when he spent much of it abroad. He had been in Madrid for World Youth Day. He was in Albania in October for a conference in Tirana of Europe’s Roman Catholic bishops.

“Albania is not in the EU, unfortunately, and churches of all faiths there have been persecuted for half a century.

“The President of Albania addressed us in the presidential palace and then Albania’s Prime Minister talked to us the following day. Obviously considerable importance was attached to our visit.’’

What made the lasting impression on Cardinal O’Brien in his travels these past few years was Haiti.

“What I witnessed at first hand there, I can never get out of my mind. I was there for ten days, a trip financed by the aid agency SCIAF.

“We walked along streets with rubbish piled high on both sides, with outsize pigs growing fatter on garbage that for them was a bonanza.

“Even more depressing, children at the same rubbish heaps fighting over every scrap of food.

“This was a year after the earthquake and we were seeing projects funded by the people of Scotland.’’

Cardinal O’Brien is still confronting his formidable itinerary for 2012. Circled, his New Year reception, a convivial evening when his red socks are guaranteed a ribbing. He has a hectic schedule ahead on Sunday, with Midnight Mass and two more that morning. After a breather he will visit all of the Catholic Church’s residential homes in Scotland.It’s well that he is blessed with sufficient stamina.

This all leaves me a tad pious. You won’t find a hopelessly lapsed Protestant deep into a one-to-one natter with a Cardinal every day.

His Eminence, I should add from experience, is pampered by his faithful housekeeper Theresa and secretary Norah.

“Don’t hesitate to drop by if you’re passing,’’ the man with the red socks assures me. “We’ll keep your customary Kit Kat and cuppa by the fire.’’