The end of one year and beginning of another is a time to take stock … and to look ahead to the promise of new opportunities.

How do Christians take stock? Is it appropriate for us to ask, as a Church, whether the Year of Our Lord 2010 brought us any closer to our goal: the whole world knowing Christ and accepting the Gospel? Is the New Evangelization bearing fruit?

Can we — or should we — ask whether our own beloved nation, the United States of America, is more of a Christian society today than it was one year ago? Do our laws conform more to God’s will? Is it a more just society?

We’ve made some progress. Perhaps it is easier now for people to get treatment for illnesses, diseases and ailments without going into financial debt. Perhaps it’s easier now for people to be protected from the abuses of some in the financial, housing and banking industries so that shady dealings won’t lead to the loss of one’s home or retirement funds or other assets. Perhaps we can say that our food supply will be safer, our flights and cities have been mostly secure from terrorists, our world may soon have fewer nuclear warheads …

But are we slipping backwards at the same time? As some of the articles in this year-end issue of the Register make too plainly clear, evil sometimes has the upper hand. People are still “trafficked,” sold into slavery and forced into unremitted labor or sex. Civil authorities often overstep their mandate and, instead of working to protect unborn life, seek to squelch the voices and tie the hands of people who want to help women in crisis.

And the news over the past 12 months has given us plenty to shake our heads about: A reform of our nation’s health-insurance system threatens to force taxpayers to pay for abortions. Our president, whose election two years ago was heralded as the end of America’s racial divide, wants to force taxpayers to support destructive experimentation on human embryos — thus furthering their status as the new underclass, a group of persons valued only for how we can use them. And a lame-duck Congress recently gave yet another stamp of approval to same-sex relationships, ending the military’s policy known as “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

But Pope Benedict XVI seems to believe the problems the world faces are deeper than a mere scorecard showing more losses than wins. In a recent address to the Roman Curia, he compared today’s society to the waning Roman Empire. “For all its new hopes and possibilities, our world is at the same time troubled by the sense that moral consensus is collapsing, consensus without which juridical and political structures cannot function,” he said.

He decried a “fatal misunderstanding of freedom which actually undermines man’s freedom and ultimately destroys it.”

One might be tempted to ask: Did the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ have any effect? After 2,000 years, we still seem to be a “people who walked in great darkness,” who have not “seen a great light.” We seem to be failing in our attempt to change the world, to influence culture, to set the fire of God’s love on the earth. Let’s just face it: We cannot save the world on our own.

And yet, there is one area in which the individual Christian has the ability to make an immense difference: in himself.

Only God can change the world — and he desires our collaboration in it. Likewise, only God can change me — and yet he chooses not to do so unless he has my permission, my collaboration.

And so, while we might want to look over the past year and assess what kind of progress we’ve made as a Church engaging the culture, it might be more fruitful to ask certain questions of ourselves. For example, Am I doing what God wants me to be doing as part of his plan to bring people to Christ? If not, where should I be? Is it right, for example, for me to spend all my time and energy in advancing my own agenda and not offer my talents in the service of the Church? Or perhaps: Is it right for me to spend hours and hours each week serving in soup kitchens or homeless shelters when there are children at home who need my guidance or a friend or sibling whose misconception of the Church might just be cleared up in a friendly chat?

In other words, do I forget that God can use me right where I am? That God wants to use me right here? That he is already giving me blessings and graces for my specific mission right now?

And then, other questions: Am I acting as a worthy messenger, one who won’t turn off the people I come into contact with, but someone whom others want to be with and listen to? Is my lifestyle contrary to the message to which I must witness: Am I so attached to material things or career advancement or pleasure or prestige that I appear as a hypocrite when I’m called upon to explain Church teachings?

While the land we call home is not about to collectively get down on her knees and make a good end-of-year examination of conscience, you can. Pray to discover the resolution that God is inviting you to make or the habit that God is inviting you to break for the Year of Our Lord 2011. Though the lights of Christmas may be out now, you can keep a light burning throughout the year.

That light may just lead someone else toward the Light of the World.