A priest gave a homily one Sunday that was exceptionally long and boring. As the congregation was filing out of church, one man said: "Father, that sermon reminded me of the peace and love of God."

The pastor, not accustomed to receiving compliments about his preaching, was delighted. "Tell me," he said, "How did my homily remind you of the peace and love of God?"

"Well," the man answered, "the Bible says that the peace of God is beyond all human understanding. And the Bible also says that the love of God endures forever."

I'll try not to remind you of those features. I'd like to focus on a Scripture reading from Jonah (3:1-5,10).

If I were to ask what you know about Jonah, you would say that he was swallowed by a whale. But let me tell you first about the setting for the Book of Jonah.

The time was the eighth century before Christ. The nation of Assyria was a powerful military force. They had conquered Israel, looted and burned its cities and deported many inhabitants.

Nineveh, in Assyria, was the Sin City of its time, known for all sorts of immorality. (The city of Nineveh, by the way, still exists today. It is now called Mosul, a city in northern Iraq.)

Jonah was sent by God as a Jewish prophet to the people of Nineveh. His message was simple and stark: "Repent of sin and reform your lives, or God will come and visit you with destruction."

Jonah hated the Ninevites. He shared the Hebrew view of the time that enemies were to be despised, and he could hardly wait for God to carry through with His threat. But Jonah did as God asked and went to preach in Nineveh - and, to his astonishment, it worked. The city underwent a conversion that was sudden and sincere; the people of Nineveh repented and promised to change their lives, so God relented and lifted the threat.

But the story ends with Jonah sad and forlorn - gloomy and sulking under a tree, because he regrets his success. Jonah is angry at the Ninevites for repenting and angry at God for forgiving them.

The point of the story is that God is rich in mercy - and that we should be, too.

The weekend of Jan. 21-22 marks the anniversary of the regrettable U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1973 called Roe v. Wade, a decision which allowed people legally to destroy children still in the womb. Since that decision, nearly 50 million tiny boys and girls have had their lives taken, a human tragedy of immense proportion.

One interesting aspect of Roe v. Wade, for me, is that most constitutional scholars - no matter which side of the abortion issue they are on - are puzzled and a bit embarrassed by Roe v. Wade because they feel that the court's opinion was poorly argued.

Even Lawrence Tribe, a Harvard law professor who is a leading civil libertarian, says: "One of the most curious things about Roe is that, behind its own verbal smokescreen, the substantive judgment on which it rests is nowhere to be found."

But I want to raise another aspect of the abortion issue today and ask: How forgiving are we to women who once made that tragic choice and now regret it?

I think that question is properly raised by the reading from Jonah, which was about God's forgiveness and our own need to mirror that mercy.

I do not mean, of course, to condone abortion in any way. All you have to do is look at a baby - their little fingers and toes so wondrously formed - to know that a baby is a gift from God and what a horrendous decision it is to return that gift unopened.

But I do mean to say that there are women today who once decided on an abortion, who now regret it and seek forgiveness from God and through the Church.

Think first about the circumstances under which some women made that choice: feeling isolated and abandoned. Oftentimes, the man equally responsible for the pregnancy had long since fled the scene.

Think also of the pressure that sometimes, sadly, comes from a girl's parents or her boyfriend - pressure to, in their words, "get rid of the problem." Think of what may go through a woman's mind long after the abortion: the doubt, the self-accusation, the sorrow.

Some time ago, a young woman came to see me who, a couple of years before, had had an abortion while she was in college. She told me that some of her closest friends had urged her to make that choice. "Don't tie up your life," they had said to her.

But the woman said to me, "Where are my friends now when I have to deal with the fact that I took my child's life? Where are they when I see babies and wonder whether mine was a boy or a girl? Where were my friends the other day when it would have been my child's second birthday and I had to suffer through that day alone?"

It probably shouldn't surprise us that feelings of regret and remorse are common. Abortion runs so counter to a woman's maternal feelings, so counter to her instincts to protect her child. And make no mistake: a woman knows intuitively that it is a child.

No woman says, "I'm carrying a fetus." Instead, she says, "I'm carrying a child. I'm carrying my baby." That's why she can feel so lonely and so empty when that baby is gone.

I believe that abortion is the great human rights issue of our day. Seventy years from now, historians may look back - as we look back now at the Holocaust - and say, "How could it have happened? How could a civilized society have permitted 4,000 children every day to have their lives taken away before they even got started?"

But I believe something else, too: that, on the level of the individual, forgiveness should be our way; that we should open our arms in compassion and gentle welcome to any woman burdened by that tragedy in the past, whether it happened decades ago or days.

God told Jonah in our first reading that he had no right to limit God's mercy - and neither do we.