A Malagasy family is pictured outside their destroyed home Feb. 8, 2022, in Mananjary, Madagascar, in the aftermath of Cyclone Batsirai. CNS photo/courtesy CRS
A Malagasy family is pictured outside their destroyed home Feb. 8, 2022, in Mananjary, Madagascar, in the aftermath of Cyclone Batsirai. CNS photo/courtesy CRS

The year was 1859.  The place was 19th century Europe. The novelist was Charles Dickens (1812-1870).  The novel was “A Tale of Two Cities.” In what is widely regarded as one of his – if not his best-known quotes – Dickens began his reflections on the historical experience of the French Revolution (1789-1799) with a series of contradictions:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

As we bid farewell to 2022, those words come to my mind.  We can easily fill in Dickens’ literary phrasing with our own memories – both good and bad – of our experiences of the year we leave behind. 

Lessons of the Past

Although the old year is still rather fresh in our minds, the new year has arrived and we greet one another with the hopeful and hope-filled phrase, “Happy New Year.” Many of us have prepared resolutions to guide our path into 2023 so that such a greeting might carry with it a promise that the year ahead – or, at least, its beginnings – will be both happy and new.  And, whether or not we have made any personal resolutions, I think it’s safe to say we all hope for the best.

This hope is tempered with an instructive caution, however, attributed in one form or another to various philosophers and statesmen over the years – Spanish-American writer George Santayana (1863-1952) and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (1874-1965) among them – “those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

No matter who said them first, there is a great deal of truth and wisdom in those words, and they apply to the recent past as well as to the times when they were initially spoken or written.

As we enter a new year, I propose that we should consider the lessons of the past more as a foundation for growth and change rather than a prison of repetition to hold us back.

Remember the scene in another famous Dickens’ story, “A Christmas Carol,” when a terrified Ebenezer Scrooge asks the Christmas ghost as he revealed a vision of Scrooge’s gravestone to him, “Are these the shadows of the things that ‘will be’ or are they shadows of the things that ‘may be’ only?” The answer to his question depended upon him and his resolution to learn from history, his own personal history. The outcome in his case was, as we all know, a good one. There is a lesson here for all of us!

It is not uncommon for us to hear or say, “we are living in crazy times” or “the world has gone insane.” An understandable sentiment as we look around today!

The great German physicist Albert Einstein (1879-1955), perhaps one of the greatest minds of the last century, once defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”  We can acknowledge the historical truth of that statement on the world stage as we study the events of human history and what has contributed to “the best of times and the worst of times” for humanity throughout the centuries.

Change Begins with Us

Rather than focus on the whole wide world and all its challenges and contradictions, let’s “bring it home” for the moment as we enter the new year.

What in our own lives creates “the best of times and the worst of times” for us? Think about it. What haven’t we learned from our own personal histories that dooms us to repetition? What is it that we keep doing over and over again thinking the outcome will be different? What do we need to leave behind? What do we need to hope and strive for in the year ahead?

The new year is a wonderfully opportune time to look deeply into ourselves, and examine our consciences to consider not only what makes us happy but also what can and will make us better people. Better husbands and wives. Better parents. Better families. Better friends. Better neighbors. Better citizens. Better co-workers. Better students. Better Christians, better Catholics! Better sons and daughters of a loving God!

Whether we want to call them resolutions or not, permit me, please, to make a few suggestions for the new year.

First, pray every day!  Don’t let a day go by without recognizing God’s presence in your life and converse with God. Share your joys, sorrows, loved ones, needs, fears, hopes and dreams with the God who created and loves YOU! Daily prayer might just make “the worst of times into the best of times!”

Second, treat people well with kindness and respect. The world lacks civility and a sense that we are all in this together, made in the image and likeness of God. Don’t forget the Golden Rule the next time you are tempted to be harsh or unkind. The world doesn’t revolve around you! “Do unto others …” Make some history worth repeating!

Third, share what you have with others, especially those in need. Time. Talents. Treasure. “The measure with which you measure will be measured back to you (Luke 6:38).” Doing this over and over again might just yield a different outcome for you … and others! Give it a try.

As your Bishop, I wish all the clergy and faithful of the Diocese of Trenton a “Happy” and “Better New Year!” It’s a privilege to serve you. To quote Dickens again, “God bless us, everyone!”