The vitality of the Church in South Korea is behind the many conversions that have taken place in the nation which Pope Francis is set to visit Aug. 13-18, according to a Salesian bishop. Bishop Mario Toso, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, visited South Korea June 21-26 to give lectures on Pope Francis' apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” in the nation's archdioceses: Kwangju, Daegu, and Seoul. Bishop Toso told CNA July 2 that he was “profoundly stricken by the interest and love of the Korean Church for poor and those who suffer. I was especially struck by priests who advocate for the weakest people and share their pain in different social contexts.” This commitment “proves that Korean priests are a good example of what Pope Francis said: ‘Priests must go to peripheries, be a shepherd with the smell of the sheep.” “I could personally witness that the Catholic Church is a sort of ‘hook’ for poor and unemployed people in South Korea,” Bishop Toso recounted. Catholics in South Korea represent 12 percent of the population. Despite the fact Catholics are a minority, they are a strong community, which includes at least 30 parliamentarians. Bishop Toso recounted that “secular, I would say secularist, media depict the Church in Korea as a conservative community, and one on the side of the government and the rich.” “I could highlight in my lectures and I personally saw,” he said, however, “that the Catholic community in Korea is strongly committed to the announcement of the Gospel and Jesus,” and that this is “a revolutionary step, since the presentation of Jesus faces the dominant culture — in Korea as well as in the rest of world — of a materialism and consumerism ready to adore the idol of money and to consider the weakest people as useless.” The bishop said the Church in Korea has been “very much on the side of the people” during social difficulties in recent years; he also recounted saying Mass for the unemployed of the country. “There was great participation. And among the participants, there were atheists. After the celebration, they told me that they were very stricken by the words of the Mass, 'only say the word and my soul shall be healed.’ When we took a picture all together, everybody wanted to hold, to shake my hands. This proved to me that people are looking for the Church, because the Church in Korea is very close to the people.” Because of this proximity, Bishop Toso said, “many have converted in recent years … I could experience that many people have converted in the course of the years.” The Catholic population of South Korea has grown rapidly, having been around 0.6 percent of the population in 1949, and 10.9 percent by 2010.