VATICAN CITY, MARCH 25, 2002 ( John Paul II met with 2,550 university men and women today and urged them to overcome the temptation to mediocrity and conformity.

The youths, who represented 280 universities and 30 countries, were in Rome to participate in the UNIV 2002 Congress, an initiative of Opus Dei that began in 1968.

"In these days of Holy Week, believers´ reflection is dominated by the mystery of the cross. Under its light, we can understand better the value of service and work, and for you, dear young people, also of study," the Pontiff said, when commenting on the theme of the young people´s meeting, "Study, Work, Service."

"The cross is a silent teaching of love, in which one really learns to love," the Holy Father added. "Following Christ, the crucified King, believers learn that to reign is to serve, seeking the good of others, and they discover that the real meaning of love is expressed in the sincere gift of self."

Quoting Opus Dei founder Josemaría Escrivá, who will be canonized Oct. 6, John Paul II said, "All the dignity of work is based on love."

"Man´s great privilege consists in being able to love, thus transcending the ephemeral and transitory," the Holy Father said in his address delivered in Italian. "Man can love other creatures, he can express a ´you´ and ´I´ full of meaning. [...] Work is born of love, it expresses love, it is ordered to love."

When life is lived with this spirit, the Christian becomes "salt of the earth and light of the world in ordinary existence," the Pope continued.

"It is not an easy way; it is often contrary to the mentality of your contemporaries," he noted. "It means, of course, to go against the current, with respect to the prevailing conduct and fashions."

"Do not be surprised by it; the mystery of the cross teaches a way of being and acting that is not in accord with the spirit of this world," John Paul II stressed.

He appealed to his listeners to resist "the temptation to mediocrity and conformity. Only in this way will you be able to make of life a gift and service to humanity; only in this way will you contribute to assuage the wounds and suffering of so many poor and marginalized peoples, still present in our technologically advanced world."

At the beginning of the audience, the Pope greeted Laurent Mazingi of Congo, president of this 35th congress of the UNIV, who on behalf of those present, thanked the Pope for testimony.

The UNIV congress, which will hold its session Tuesday at the University of La Sapienza, was organized by the Institute for University Cooperation, an Italian group that promotes initiatives for cooperation in development in several countries.