The white smoke went up more than a year ago. But Cincinnati is still wondering: Who is the new archbishop?

Is he the 21st-century John the Baptist who will make the path straight for a return to orthodoxy? Or, is he a more cerebral theologian who would feel comfortable in the faculty lounge at Xavier University?

The answer is yes.

Archbishop Dennis Schnurr, a young-looking 61, is charming and direct. But he can also file the edge off a pointed question as deftly as anyone in Washington, D.C., where he spent 20 years.

He speaks with a great-northern lilt that sounds like Duluth — where he was the bishop for the past seven years — just “aboot” a slap shot from the Canadian border. But, as a native of small-town Iowa, he was glad to find Cincinnati “very, very Midwestern in its values and its hospitality.”

Schnurr encourages casual Catholics by saying that the message of Pope Benedict XVI is that “there is room for legitimate diversity in the church.” But then he inspires traditionalists by insisting, “The second Vatican was about opening the window, not starting to throw things out.”

Rich Leonardi, a conservative, traditionalist Catholic, notes of Schnurr in his blog, “Ten Reasons: The Observations of a Seditious Catechist”: “As bishop of Duluth, he moved quickly to reform/clean house in the diocese’s teaching office, sacking a couple of malcontents and putting a young, orthodox catechist in charge of the program.” But, “He took no discernible interest in promoting the Traditional Latin Mass while in Duluth. ... If our liturgical life is sloppy, disobedient, and entertainment-driven, as it is in Cincinnati, it will be reflected in the character of the people.”

Another member of the archdiocese who knows and admires Schnurr and the archbishop he replaces, says, “He will be more like Archbishop Pilarczyk than some would like and less different that some would fear.”

In other words, Archbishop Schnurr is three-dimensional, like all of us. And that’s important to this area, where Catholic tradition runs as deep and wide as the Ohio River.

During an interview in St. Peter in Chains Cathedral, there were plenty of smoke signals that indicate a stronger, more energetic, more traditional and pastoral leader.

Asked about Cincinnati’s historic churches, Schnurr gestured toward the sunlit stained glass, arches and pillars above, saying, “I love the tradition of the architecture, and the I love the way it has been preserved.”

He could just as easily have been talking about preserving the traditional architecture of the church that is not bricks and mortar, but lives in the hearts of believers.

Q: In Duluth, you wrote, “Oftentimes terms such as ‘hardliner’ or ‘ultra-conservative’ conjure up images that fall short of reality. Pope Benedict XVI is a man of deep faith who wishes to voice the authentic teachings of Jesus and wishes, as well, to help others experience the joy (Jn. 15:11), peace (Jn. 14:27), and fullness of life (Jn. 10:10) that Jesus promises to those who live by these truths.” Have you been called a hardliner or ultra-conservative?

A: “No, I don’t think those terms have been applied to me. But was there a realization that I would be faithful to the teachings of the church? Yes.”

Q: Which side did you take in the controversy over Notre Dame honoring

President Barack Obama despite his pro-abortion record?

A: “I supported the local bishop (who opposed the invitation). He is the one the Holy Father put in place to take care of his flock.”

Q: If someone takes a public position in favor of abortion, is it appropriate to deny that person Holy Communion?

A: “It is all based on the needs of the local church and the individual, but the bishop has the right to ask an individual not to receive Communion. Communion symbolizes that we are one. If the actions of an individual are contrary to the teachings of Christ, there is no communion.”

Q: Archbishop Pilarczyk, who led Cincinnati for 27 years, was criticized in the recent past for positions against the Cincinnati Museum Center’s Bodies exhibit, against a local ordinance that blocked gay rights and against the ordination of women priests. Would you have taken any different positions?

A: “No, I would not. My position is to speak the truth when the truth needs to be spoken.”

Q: What do you think is the biggest misconception about the Catholic Church?

A: “That the teachings of the church are somehow put together at the Vatican. That’s not the case. The teachings are of Christ.”

Q: You once canceled a speech by anti-death penalty social activist Sister Helen Prejean. What was that all about?

A: “The media got it wrong. They said I disinvited her because she signed on to a ad criticizing the Bush administration. But, I disinvited her because the ad supported abortion and she signed on to it.”

Q: You were the leader of the World Youth Day in Denver when Pope John Paul II attended. Will youth programs be a big part of your ministry?

A: “Yes. Wherever I go, I find that young people want to come forward. They are ready and want to do more.”

Q: Cincinnati has a strong tradition in the pro-life movement, including the founders of Right to Life, Dr. John Wilke and his wife, Barbara. How do you see your role?

A: I am very grateful that there is a long and strong tradition here. I am very glad to participate in prayer services and protests, but the moving force is the lay people and that’s the way it should be.

Q: What message will you emphasize?

A: “It’s the truth of Christ that will set people free. If I’m not presenting that, I am not fulfilling my duty.”

Q: What is your first priority?

A: “What I’ve seen in this diocese and across the country is that our people are eager to learn the Catholic faith in greater depth. Some aspects (such as ritual and doctrine) have never been explained to them.”

Q: What are your favorite Bible verses?

A: “John 10:10 (“I am come that they might have life and have it more abundantly.”) and John 15:5 (“I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me will bear much fruit, for without me you can do nothing.”) Also, John 14. As you can see, I like the Book of John.”

Schnurr smiles: “The people in this archdiocese are going to get fed up with me talking about the peace, joy and life that Christ teaches.”