VATICAN CITY, DEC. 21, 2005 ( Only by following Jesus can one find the true meaning of life -- and lasting joy, says Benedict XVI.

The Holy Father delivered that message Monday when receiving young people of Italian Catholic Action in audience, an annual tradition begun by Pope Paul VI to exchange greetings for the forthcoming celebration of Jesus' birth.

The 32 youngsters had come to Rome from 16 dioceses representing 150,000 members of Italian Catholic Action. They were accompanied by the general ecclesiastical assistant, Monsignor Francesco Lambiasi, and their president, Luigi Alici.

"Seek always the Lord Jesus, grow in friendship with him, learn to listen to and to know his word and to recognize him in the poor, present in your communities," the Pope exhorted the youths.

"Live your lives with joy and enthusiasm, sure of his presence and of his free, generous and faithful friendship unto death on the cross," he added.

Call to witness

Benedict XVI also mentioned the motto chosen by Italian Catholic Action for its 2005-2006 formation program, "You Are with Us."

"Dear young people: The Lord Jesus is always with us and always walks with his Church, accompanying her and watching over her. Never doubt his presence!" urged the Holy Father.

Benedict XVI invited the young people to give witness of "the joy of this presence of his which is strong and gentle to all," beginning with their contemporaries.

"Tell them that it is wonderful to be friends of Jesus and that it is good to follow him," he urged. "Show with your enthusiasm that among the many ways of living that the world seems to offer us today, all apparently on the same plane, that only by following Jesus is the true meaning of life found and because of this, true and lasting joy."

The Holy Father expressed his pleasure over the national "twinning" of the youth of Italian Catholic Action in support of the Diocese of Sarajevo, in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

"This commitment to peace, which you have taken on with your brothers of Sarajevo, is really a sign of your friendship with Jesus, whom the Scriptures call the Prince of Peace," the Pontiff added.

Personal greetings

At the end of the audience, Benedict XVI spoke with and greeted every one of the young people in attendance and received the gifts of the dioceses represented.

Catholic Action, a lay association which generally has its point of meeting and reference in parishes, dates back to 1867, to the Society of Italian Catholic Youth, approved the following year by Pope Pius IX. It was established with its present name and configuration by Pope Pius XI.

In Italy, Catholic Action has some 180,000 adult members, 80,000 youths and 150,000 adolescents.