Reflections on life, meaning and purpose

Fulton Sheen’s Advice for Beginning a New Year

We have just lived through the end of 2021 and the very beginning of 2022. Most of us have probably participated in annual festivities, including soirees with friends; worn glamorous new outfits and perhaps funny hats and glasses; and lifted champagne toasts at midnight on New Year’s Eve. Yet, America’s great pastor, Ven. Fulton Sheen gives us quite a bit more to think about as we make and live up to our annual resolutions proceeding through January. We would do well to ponder the truth that he conveys to us.

During his career as a clergyman and media personality, Sheen wrote a couple of articles about the ways we should think about the passage of one year to the next. At one point in his writing, Sheen echoed the very same concept that we have heard from pop psychologists and broadcasters of New Year’s Eve festivities. “The beginning of a new year,” he wrote, “is an opportunity for improvement. It makes little difference what the past has been….” This is certainly true in many ways, and we commonly hear of people’s hopes that one year will be better than the last. As human beings, we are prone to hope in this way, especially when our last two years have brought a world-wide pandemic, a deeply divisive political election, and a significant economic recession.

Yet, we must know that a mere few seconds around midnight, or a single digit at the end of a date, are not the harbingers of the “better days” for which we hope. Something more significant must change in order for the trends of one “bad” year to pass away, and for new trends to be established in a new year. Ultimately, that something deeper must be a rejection of social and cultural trends that keep us focused on ourselves, our bank accounts, and the differences that exist among every group of fallen human beings. We must, instead, focus on the fact that spiritual conversion, conversion of mind and heart, is the greatest miracle of our lives; and we must see such transformation as the greatest reality and opportunity for each new year.

Fulton Sheen wrote exactly this in the same article. “Each new year,” he scribed, “is actually a testing and proving ground for eternity, a kind of novitiate in which we say ‘aye’ or ‘nay’ to our eternal destiny….” Our eternal destiny is Heaven, and we must recognize that reality, whether it is 11:00 pm on December 31 or 11:00am on January 15, or any other time of the year. “What matters most,” Sheen offered, “is the sanctification of the now moment.” More than forty years beyond his death, we can still take his advice: we must work on sanctifying every new moment, no matter where it falls on the calendar.

At the end of his short article, Sheen included the concept that is most important in this conversation. “Time is equivalent to what can be done or gained by it,” he stated. The reality is that Our Blessed Lord wants to use time not to cause a precipitous rise in the stock market, but to write our conversions. Sheen is alluding to the truth taught by St. Augustine: the greatest miracle that God can do is to elicit the conversion of a sinner. That’s what God really wants to do with each of us as 2021 has turned to 2022. He wants to pour out His grace upon us so that each one of us becomes a saint. Really, the most important question of the new year is: Will we let Him work in us so that it becomes a reality? Will we gain eternity in 2022?

So, what is Fulton Sheen’s advice for beginning a new year, specifically for beginning 2022? His advice is to use this year to focus on conversion, away from sin and toward the Lord. Any use of time other than that is really a waste of time, no matter how many academic honors we might attain or how wealthy we might become. So, let’s focus less on the headlines and crises in our timelines. Instead, let’s ask how Our Blessed Lord wants to use these things for His glory and our conversion to holiness. That will allow it to be a great year.