Gentle Challenge


Gentle Challenge

Marisa Rodríguez Abancéns

Translated from the Spanish by


Original titre: Pedro Poveda. Mansedumbre y provocación

Araceli Cantero
Archives of the Teresian Association
Natuca Cordón

Cover and Design by Susan Waine


Places associated with Saint Pedro Poveda

1. Introduction

2. “May I do as You wish me to do.”

3. Deep faith

4. When and where did it all begin?

5. Guadix: changing things peacefully

6. Covadonga: origin of the Teresian Association

7. Jaén: life against the current

8. Pedro Poveda in Madrid: “If you have to die, you die.”

9. A witness for today

10. The Teresian Association now

Pedro Poveda: Biographical dates

Pedro Poveda: Bibliographical references and bibliography

To my parents,
whose faith and generosity
did me so much good.


Places associated with
Saint Pedro Poveda




Telling the story of a great man

“To dare” was a word that meant a lot to Pedro Poveda. And it could easily be said that this book itself is a piece of daring, aiming as it does to recount a very fruitful life in relatively few pages. There are valuable biographies of this man beside which the present volume seems very short. But that was precisely my aim: to tell the story of a great man in a short format. And to do so without losing intensity, value or interest in the process. Whether this is actually achieved, the reader may judge for him or herself.

A great deal of respect is needed when you approach someone’s life. It is a little like leaning out over a balcony to see the ocean and only being able to take in a single eyeful. Every life eludes the grasp of anyone contemplating it and if the aim is to make that life known to others, things get even more complicated. However that is my aim in this book and to achieve it I have slowly gone over a human journey from beginning to end. I have stopped at every known corner of the path which was the existence of Pedro Poveda and have paused at some of his writings.

You can get to know human beings from what they say when their life bears out their words, as is the case with our protagonist. Few things help us identify with another more than reading what they have written.

There are stories whose force and vitality are contagious, so that we almost unconsciously appropriate their gestures and way of looking at things. My hope is that something similar will happen to the reader of these pages, since I am convinced that this saint of today, this good man who has much to say to contemporary society, can exert a worthwhile influence.

This book is addressed to the general public to lead them along the path that was Pedro Poveda’s life as a priest, humanist, educationalist and founder of the Teresian Association.

The life recounted here is also that of a witness who lived with intensity the first third of the 20th century in Spain, with all its consequences. It is the story of a man who took risks and made of the Christian faith his reason for living, a faith for which he gave his life and suffered martyrdom.

Poveda’s story can be of interest to everyone, believers or otherwise, young or old, intellectuals or ordinary people, because it is a true story. In the following pages all that seems true is true. It happened and I recount it as such.

Finally I must thank all the people who have supported me in writing this book, since it was their enthusiasm and trust in me which made it possible.

And my thanks, above all, go to Pedro Poveda himself, who has taught us the Christian dream afresh.



Pedro Poveda (1874–1936)


May I do as You want me to do.

Great hopes, strong convictions, intense love

That night of July 1936 was unlike any other. It stood alone, unique, the night of a few last fateful words. As the door closed of Number 7, Alameda St., Madrid, the words of St Paul “…until Christ be formed in you,” were fulfilled. Something Pedro Poveda had always wanted was happening. “Lord, may I think as You want me to think, may I love as You want me to love, may I speak as You wish me to speak. This is my one desire.” Many times he would repeat this prayer, simple, transparent and so daring it might even seem presumptuous, were it not for the humility of the one praying it. The whole life of this priest was fraught with the daring and risk that come with great love affairs.

That night his life lit up with a great light. He had also insistently made a further request, spurred on by another of his passions: “I ask God for the grace not to live a single day without celebrating Holy Mass.” History attests that this man, who had held his priestly identity above all else, did indeed celebrate Mass up to his very last day. That is to say, up to that final morning of 27th July 1936 when his life was taken from him in exchange for a few final words: “I am a priest of Jesus Christ.”

There are no written documents to prove whether his first petition to do as God wished him to do was fulfilled. In the end only God knows to what extent a person has responded to His plan. Only God. Yet nonetheless how could those around him not vouch for it, – those people who knew him in life and shared in his spirit, – the spirit of someone who tirelessly sought the will of the Father? The Church knows it, recognising in him an example of holiness. His deeds affirm it, because, to use his own words, they witness to what we are.

Pedro Poveda was a man of both thought and action. “Begin by doing” was his advice. He lived in a secularised society which he wished to transform in accordance with the values of the Gospel, that is, to make it more just, more human and more Godly. And into this he poured all his energy. Difficulties and they were many, did not paralyse him. He began each phase of his life with his spirits and hope intact.

To remember this priest is to recall a story of faithfulness, a free and creative faithfulness, stretching over his life like a long word, expressing its ultimate meaning.

Did Pedro Poveda do as God wished him to? Everything would seem to affirm that he did. The reader may decide for him or herself through these pages that narrate his life. It was a life lived in response to a call, a journey in which his identity took on five unmistakable features: he believed in the value of all that is human and became a priest; he was pained at the poverty he saw and ranged himself alongside the poor; he believed in education’s power to transform people and opened schools and cultural centres; he was convinced of the importance of lay Christians in the Church and founded the Teresian Association; he was so passionate about his faith that he gave his life for it.

This is a story of great hopes, strong convictions and intense love.

“Begin by doing” was his advice.


Deep faith

Believing in the value of what is little

Pedro Poveda was a humble man who struggled for the cause of God and God made him into a witness to hope, in a plural and controversial world. His message may be summed up in a few words: to live faith as deeply as breathing; to live life discovering God’s footsteps in the everyday; to seek that interface where faith and life meet passionately; to strive to make society recognise and respect the dignity of each person. Then love, peace, justice and everything, just about everything, could be reborn.

That is why Poveda’s thought is best understood from within real situations: being present, seeking responses, putting question marks over the existing state of things; giving, giving of oneself without measure. To talk of Pedro Poveda is to evoke the salt of the earth: simple, generous and out of all proportion to its effect. It is to believe that an ideal state of society is achievable, because love changes life and people disposed to love are able to create another kind of world. It is to believe in respecting difference, in dialogue and the power of co-operation. But above all it is to believe in the value of what is little, in the richness of giving and in the courage to begin all over again.

To believe, always believe. And to name that faith out loud. Because, he tells us, “You cannot believe with all your heart and remain silent.” Pedro Poveda’s faith was the compass of his life. His commitment to humanity sprang from it. As did his life’s destiny. You die as you have lived. He lived out in the open and gave his life – “The disciple is not greater than the master” – for his deepest conviction: faith must shout aloud in the market-place and show that God journeys with His people.



When and where did it all begin?

Destined to be sown like a grain of wheat

Pedro Poveda lived to be sixty-one, from 1874 to 1936, between the end of the nineteenth and the early twentieth century. As can happen around the turn of a century, opposing interpretations of the notion of the human person, the meaning of the world and human history arose. In Spain this period lasted from the Restoration of the Monarchy1 to the Second Republic2 and up to the Civil War of 1936, something Poveda only barely had time to experience.

In those years, too, World War One was to break out with all its political and social fall out. It would still take a few decades for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to be proclaimed and social inequalities were striking. Education was going through a critical phase, while the world of knowledge and scientific development set itself in opposition to faith as two irreconcilable opposites.

Geographically speaking, Poveda’s life centred on five places: Linares, his native town in the province of Jaén; Guadix in Granada, where he began his work of preaching the Gospel and setting up schools; Covadonga in Asturias, where he conceived and set in motion his project of the Teresian Association; the city of Jaén, where he both organised the Association and engaged deeply with the local situation; finally Madrid, where he lived the years of his full maturity, of complete coherence with his faith, witnessing and giving his life in martyrdom. Five phases of a life that fill just a few lines! – sixty-one and a half years, rich and full, stretching all the way to today. For some people do not die. They live on in history through others who share those same passions and those same tasks.

A child bringing joy

It all began on 3rd December 1874. It was the day that Pedro Poveda was born in Linares, an Andalusian town of shiny olive trees and deep mines that seemed to plunge in search of the soul of the landscape. Such would be the faith of Pedro, baptised in the Church of this people: a faith tough and strong, that pushes out boundaries and breaks frontiers. He was destined to be sown like a grain of wheat, like yeast or leaven in dough. But first he was simply a child, bringing joy to his family.

From his house at No. 3 Bermejal Square the sirens of factories could be heard, along with the screech of trams bound for the mines. Linares was a busy industrial town, whose Mayor was both a doctor and a republican. At that time the newborn’s father had just been elected Town Counsellor, an office he did not hold, however, for very long. The Poveda child was given the names Pedro, José, Luis and Francisco Xavier.

Following the custom among Christian families of the area, the baby was offered to Our Lady. His aunt, Ana María Castroverde, presented him before a painting of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception in the prayer room of her house, familiarly known as ” Granny’s Immaculate”. Pedro Poveda himself recalled the moment later on, in a short writing called “Story of a Painting”: “When the Lord brought me into the world, a holy woman, though uncanonised, Ana María Castroverde, widow of Gómez and my maternal grandmother’s sister, took me into her arms as soon as I was born and presented me before the painting of the Immaculate Virgin Mary to receive her blessing…” Although there was nothing exceptional about the little Marian devotion, Mary’s presence right throughout Pedro Poveda’s life was exceptional indeed.

Pedro, the boy with blue eyes, lived a normal childhood like his friends and along with them, used to dress up in small vestments “to play at saying Mass.” But the game fanned a great desire in him, a dream he would cherish of an inestimable treasure.

From 1876 on the family grew with the birth of his five siblings: José, Luis, Ana, Cosme and Carlos.

Having completed the first part of his school studies he entered Jaén Seminary in October1889, shortly before his fifteenth birthday. “I had to fight a battle to make them let me go to the Seminary,” he said later. His father, Don3 José Poveda, was a good man and his mother, Doña Linarejos Castroverde, a good woman. They were Catholic, cultured and of good standing. Don José, the father, a chemist in a mining company, wanted his son to do his final school exams before entering the seminary, fearing he would give up his school studies, but he need not have worried. The young seminarian did his final school exams and finished his baccalaureate with first class honours.

The very young student would never forget the day he entered Jaén Seminary, “the greatest joy I could be given”. He now had a clear path ahead of him. He would always gladly recall his days in that place as a time of peace and deep devotion, close to his fellow students in their communal life. “When I look back, our days there in the seminary give me a good feeling. I think I made a good seminarian,” he wrote later.

He had become by then a studious young man, a good friend to his friends and already very much aware of everything going on around him in his family, the Church and society. He had made a home of Jaén Seminary. He was happy there, yet he was not to stay for very long.



Our Lady of Grace (detail), Ermita Nueva in the caves area, Guadix


Guadix: Changing things peacefully

Eager to get started

Does God write straight with crooked lines? It is lovely to think that perhaps He did in this instance, on the chalk walls of a cave4. God may well have written Pedro Poveda’s name there. That young seminarian would have been someone else entirely and have lived another story, had he not gone to Guadix through fortuitous circumstances to spend some extraordinary years there, splendid and fruitful.

Young Poveda moved to Guadix Seminary at the request of the Bishop Maximiliano Fernández del Rincón.

The young man left Linares, his native town, in a carriage accompanied by his father, Don José Poveda Montes. It was September 28th, 1894. When they arrived in the town it was already night. They made for San Torcuato Seminary and were immediately welcomed by the Rector, Fr. Andrés Vílchez.

Making the most of the time before returning home, Don José and his son went out together to explore the town. The father’s feelings were mixed, between gladness at seeing his son happy and sadness at saying goodbye. The young Poveda was all excited and eager to get started. “I was full of enthusiasm going to Guadix and wanting to be as holy as anything,” he wrote later. The streets bustled with crowds, traders, shops, bars and lots of life. Guadix had a certain social standing and in the main square groups of gentlemen could be seen entering social clubs for discussion, while the ladies drank coffee or played board games. The visitors commented that life seemed good there.

The first month flew by and on 23rd October, after the Bishop’s arrival, the academic year at the Seminary began. Poveda was just nineteen and a good student. He liked reading, discussing and being up to date on the latest ideas. “When I was a youth in the seminary – not that I mean to set myself up as an example – we would gather in groups and talk about all we were studying. At the time I knew more books and more things, took more notes and studied more than in all the rest of my life,” he recounted at a talk many years later on 28th September 1933 in Madrid.

He was happy at the seminary. He liked everything about it: his fellow students, the studies, even the timetable and the food. He particularly liked going for a walk and taking in the landscape, getting to know the people and the district.

There was something he could not miss: the belt of little clay hills around the town, a tight life-restricting belt. It surprised the young seminarian, in love with God and intensely alert to people’s needs. He had come here with an intense desire; now it had grown to a loud cry: he would be a priest!


At last the long-awaited day of priestly ordination arrived. Now those words of humanity and tenderness with which Jesus had outlined the priesthood for the very first time, echoed insistently in his spirit: “Now I call you no longer servants, but friends…”, “You did not chose Me but I chose you and called you to bear much fruit…,” “The servant is not greater than his master”, “Father, consecrate them in the truth”, “Do this in memory of me.5

On 17th April 1897, Holy Saturday, he was ordained priest in the Bishop’s residence. Pedro Poveda was twentytwo, for which reason he had had to ask for an exception, since he was under the required age for ordination. Present at the simple and solemn act were his parents, family and the six other ordinands. His parents knew their son had waited all his life for this moment, so when in the course of the ceremony the Bishop asked the ordinands in Latin if they believed themselves to be worthy, Don José Poveda definitely thought so, insofar as one can be.

When he celebrated his first Mass four days later on 21st April there were few people present. It was Easter Wednesday and a day that Pedro Poveda would never forget.

Right throughout his life his priestly anniversaries would be the dearest and most remembered. He celebrated them as the best thing that had ever happened to him, as the event of his life.

He called them “blessed days.” Much later in one of his diaries he noted: “It is just thirty-six years since I was ordained priest. How many more shall I live? God alone knows. I ask of Him the grace not to miss celebrating Holy Mass with fervour even for a single day.”

“The servant is not greater than his master”

Called to the priesthood, Pedro Poveda felt like an instrument of God in the world. And it was as a priest that he always looked at life and took his stance.

Those were years of intense spiritual life, friendship and service, along with his companions. All found that the young priest inspired trust. All could find a place beside him, a friendly gesture, a moment of company, help with some doubt, support, peace. That was how Fr. Pedro Poveda was, a tireless seeker of God’s will, a simple instrument in the Father’s hands. “There in Guadix,” he wrote in 1919, “I was God’s instrument for many good things.”

He approached all issues from the perspective of his priesthood. He would later assist in the formation of others as a teacher in the Seminary and as a spiritual director, always living his priesthood as a gift. For him being a priest was a fact of faith that placed him continually at the service of life. A priest for God and for people. Everything to everybody.

The Eucharist was the centre of his life, the intimate secret, the daily love that made insistent demands. As a celebrant his fervour was noticeable and touched those present: “I will never forget Fr. Poveda’s Masses,” recounted one witness, “There was nothing loud about his devotion, quite the contrary. What struck me unforgettably was the serenity, peace and silence you could feel throughout the whole celebration. He brought his whole life to it. You could tell from his gestures that he lived the mystery intensely.”

Pedro Poveda used to say the earliest Masses in the cathedral. He preached in the churches of Guadix and the congregations liked what he said and how he went about it. They recognised that he spoke well, knew what he wanted and meant it. This was how he was seen by the clergy and the people, even the more liberal among them.


Poveda had come to Guadix with the sun burning bright in his life. But what did he see that made such an impact? A town girdled by caves, a bright chalky landscape of deep burrows, protruding chimneys, simple people. A thirsty place.

He had become aware of the great inequality in that society and decided to put all his energies into addressing the problem. To begin, to begin by doing something! It was the spearhead of his approach.

It was natural for a sensitive young man to be shocked by the situation of disadvantage and poverty in the caves district in that remote part of Spain at the turn of the 20th century.