For the first time ever a woman and a layperson has been named head of a faculty of Rome's Lateran University.
Angela Ales-Bello, 57, takes over the faculty of philosophy: a role of supreme importance given the university's close ties with the nerve centre of the Catholic Church and a post which until now has always been held by a priest.
The Lateran is seen as the "Pope's University" and is the Catholic university most directly controlled by the Holy See.
"I do not believe that my appointment is a reflection of my own personal qualities. Rather, it reflects an objective transformation in the Lateran University. Not a radical change, but a gradual opening up towards the presence and influence of the laity," said Professor Ales-Bello.
Known to be a personal friend of Pope John Paul II, she shares with him a keen interest in the German phenomenological school of philosophy and has published much on the subject, particularly on German philosopher Edmund Husserl, the originator of phenomenology. She has taught history of contemporary philosophy at the Lateran university for ten years.
Among Vatican-watchers, Professor Ales-Bello's appointment is seen as a practical example of the Polish pope's vision of the role of women. While he has always rejected the idea that women should be ordained as priests, he has repeatedly underlined the role that women must play in society and not just in the family.
The Lateran University, founded in 1773 by Pope Clement XIV, is located next to the Basilica of St John in Lateran and is legally part of the Vatican state. Its rector is named directly by the pope and the university can boast four saints among its former students.
The Pontificia Universitas Lateranensis includes faculties of philosophy, theology, law and canon law and has about 6,000 students in Rome and several thousand in connected institutes worldwide. Originally for the clergy, today two-thirds are lay people.
Students need not be Catholics, in theory, but need to be presented by their parish priests and their bishops. There are students from 73 different countries.