Many of China's Catholics are awaiting the election of Pope Benedict XVI's successor with high expectations.
"We pray for the new pope," said Father Francis Zhang, a Beijing priest. "We hope he will be spiritual, dynamic and open minded. We hope he will be more open to China, more pragmatic, and someone who understands very well the Chinese Catholic church."
In recent days, Father Zhang, the parish priest of the Yongning Catholic church in the northern suburbs of the capital, has been travelling to several Chinese cities, giving lectures to jam-packed audiences of priests, seminarians and laymen.
"Sometimes the audience is as big as 4,000 people," he enthused. "I talk about religion and church management."
Chinese Catholics like Zhang have long been caught in the middle of a decades-long conflict between China's Communist Party and the Vatican.
They are walking a fine line between loyalty to the Holy See and to their country.
"Of course we believe in one holy, Catholic and apostolic church," Zhang said. "We are in total union with the Holy See in terms of liturgy, theology, holy communion and rites.
"As a Chinese priest, we love our country, the motherland. We are law-abiding."
China today remains largely atheist under the rule of the Communist Party. Even so, churches like Zhang's have been attracting old believers and new converts.
China's State Administration for Religious Affairs says some six million Chinese Catholics attend services in government-sanctioned churches, but others practice their faith in secret -- in Catholic churches outside government control.
"Many of them are still going to the underground churches," said Father Zhang.
Experts say millions worship in underground churches -- so-called "house-churches" that are fiercely loyal to the Vatican and disagree with government restrictions and periodic crackdowns.
After the 1949 revolution, the ruling Communist Party denounced religion as the "opiate" of the masses.
China cut off ties with the Vatican in 1951 and the two sides have been estranged ever since.
Religious persecution reached a crescendo during the chaotic Cultural Revolution (1966-76), when clergy and laymen alike were persecuted, jailed and even killed.
In the early 1970s, I remember walking by what looked like churches in central Beijing. They were padlocked or used as workshops or warehouses. Religion remained taboo.
A few years after Chairman Mao's death in 1976, China reopened "patriotic churches" where people can practice religion under government control.
More than thirty years of reform has turned China into the second biggest economy in the world.
It also has one of the fastest growing Christian communities in the world.
With less strict adherence to communist ideology, many Chinese appeared spirtually adrift, looking for a value system on which to anchor their lives as they cope with rampant materialism, money-worship and widespread corruption.
Many turn to religion for solace.
"They are looking for peace and stability, for spiritual purification," said Father Zhang.
Last autumn, I watched Zhang preside over an elaborate wedding of 62 couples from across China. Most were newly married; others were older couples renewing their vows.
I asked one groom, a white-collar worker in Beijing, "Why turn Catholic?" "Religion helps people, young and old, draw a red line between what is moral and proper, and what is not," he answered.
Zhang says local officials approve of religion too because it helps improve social stability. "It promotes social harmony," echoing the Chinese leadership's political slogan.