For the first time in the Church's history, a woman has been appointed to head a pontifical university.

This July, the Congregation for Catholic Education, headed by Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski, chose Sister Mary Melone to head the Pontifical University Antonianum, run by the Order of Friars Minor.

In a wide-ranging, exclusive interview with ZENIT in Rome this month, Sr. Mary shared her response to her appointment, what it took to get there, and challenges she faced.

In the interview, the sister speaks on whether the role of women is changing in the Vatican, what's misundedrstood, as well as how Pope Francis is advancing women in the Church. She also gives advice to other women wishing to serve in the Church and the Vatican.

Considered an expert on Saint Anthony of Padua, Sr. Mary also was the first woman to obtain a permanent position as a professor on the theology faculty of the Roman university, as well as be its first female dean, according to Vatican Insider.

Born in La Spezia in 1964, Maria Domenica, her birth name, would finish school specializing in classics. She joined the Franciscan Sisters of Blessed Angelina, taking temporary vows in 1986 and perpetual vows in 1991.

She is currently president of the Italian Society for Theological Research and former head of the Higher Institute of Religious Sciences "Redemptor Hominis."

Sr. Mary has held numerous leading roles in academia, and has published many articles and essays.

ZENIT: You are the first woman ever to be rector of a Pontifical University. Can you reflect on your emotional response to this appointment? What do you believe enabled you to achieve this?

Sr. Mary: My emotional response was one of great surprise: like everyone else, I also did not believe possible my appointment. And this is not because I am a woman, but because the university is an expression of the Order of the Friars Minor, and for me it was natural that the order would want to ensure its direct management of such an important institution.

Instead, the order has demonstrated great openness toward the whole Franciscan Family, also the feminine, and great seriousness and consistency in respecting the academic criteria, according to which the university academic community votes for the rector. This openness was then shared by the Holy Sees Congregation for Catholic Education, whose duty it is to make the definitive appointment.

ZENIT: What were the greatest challenges you encountered for being female in getting where you are?

Sr. Mary: I think that, in itself, the role of the rector requires essentially academic competence, which has nothing to do with being man or woman. The challenges, in fact, regards the capacity of a university institution to open itself to our time while keeping itself anchored in its tradition. However, it is true that being a woman bears some specificities, especially in the way of accepting and addressing such challenges; it seems to me that feminine sensibility gives much importance to relations, to the traits of listening and hospitality that they must have.

ZENIT: Do you think the role of women is changing in the Vatican? Can you speak of Francis vs Benedicts efforts?

Sr. Mary: The role of woman in the Church is certainly changing, and ever more possibilities are open to her, also to cover roles of responsibility. This, in fact, is one of the most reiterated objectives by Pope Francis, who continues to request the insertion of women in the Church at all levels, recognizing her irreplaceable contribution. But the previous Pontiffs had already begun to entrust governing posts to some women. As an example for all, I would like to recall the appointment of Sister Enrica Rosanna, FMA, as under-secretary of CIVCSVA.

ZENIT: What should people realize about the role of women in the Church, that they often misunderstand?

Sr. Mary: In the main, it is necessary to recognize the great capacity of reflection and management that women have and that can be put at the service of the different ecclesial communities. I allow myself a personal reference. I am a religious and I know very well how great and significant is the number of works that women religious create and manage all over the world. They are simple and grandiose works, many are in the vanguard and many are carried forward with sacrifices and, among these works, very many ensure the cultural and intellectual formation of young people.

ZENIT: What is your personal opinion of Pope Francis and what he is doing in the Church? ... What would you tell other women who wish to advance in the Vatican or the Church? (Could you make a comparison between advancement or ceilings in the Church vs. those in the business world or other industries)

Sr. Mary: I do not think women should nourish a mentality of conquest in matters of the Church and of governing roles. This must not be our attitude: we women have always contributed to building the Church in a unique, precious and irreplaceable way, even if it is often unknown. Hence, my wish is very simple: to invest ever more in our formation and preparation, to continue to collaborate actively in the building of the Church. In this way, we will ensure ever more for ourselves the space that we merit!

[Original Text: Italian]

[Translation by ZENIT]


On ZENIT's Web page:

Article following her appointment: