There are five steps to making a great Confession.
First, I must examine my conscience. I must compare my life to the life of Christ. In an examination of conscience, Christ must be the standard I compare myself to and not my fellow man. I must sit quietly and ask God to reveal to me the times when I have failed, the times when He had difficulty recognizing me as His son.
Second, I must have sorrow for those sins that have been revealed during the examination. I must be sorry for having offended God, my neighbor, and myself for in sinning I have damaged my relationships with all three. This sorrow may be perfect (sorrow for offending God and others) or imperfect (sorrow out of fear of punishment). God wants me to have perfect sorrow or contrition for my sins but in His mercy may lead me to that perfect sorrow by use of imperfect sorrow.
Third, I must confess my sins to a priest. It is not enough to merely recognize my sins and be sorry for them. I must also confess them to one whom God has chosen to represent Him. The priest, who in the confessional is to be understood as the agent of Christ, reconciles me to both God and others thus restoring the relationship broken by sin.
Fourth, I must have the intention to never commit those sins again - with God's grace. I must have a firm purpose of amending my life. I must seek to separate myself from that which separated me from God and my fellow man. I must adopt the motto of the saints, "death rather than sin."
Fifth, I must do penance for my sins. I must perform some act that shows God, but more importantly me, that I am sorry for my sins. Like the sacrifices of the Old Testament, those sacrifices were for the people and not for God. They were like penances to bring the people back to God for He has no need of sheep or bullocks. This penance helps me to break my addiction to sin. It helps me to take that false idol of sin and destroy it by making a sacrifice through penance.
So, why the five steps on New Year's Day? Well, in my mind, the whole idea of a New Year's Resolution is a sort of primordial desire of the human race to confess. The resolutions made on this day have all the makings of a good confession though they lack sacramental graces and this is why they fail. It is a day that echoes the words of St. Paul, "What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate."(Rom. 7:15)
It is a day when many follow the five steps for making a good confession but fail because the intention is not aimed at holiness. There is an examination of life but the world is the standard and not Christ. There is sorrow but it is a sorrow based on vanity. It is based on how one sees oneself with the eyes of the world. There is confession but not to God nor His representative but to one another implicitly through the "resolution". There is an intention to change but this intention has grown like a weed in the rocky soil of a poor examination, a vanity based sorrow, and a shallow confession, and will therefore bear no fruit. There is a penance and it is self-imposed. This penance is often short-lived since it lacks the grace to sustain it for long.
Am I against New Year's resolutions? No, but I must remind myself that in the Church, our "new year" began over 4 weeks ago with the First Sunday of Advent. The Church, in Her wisdom, has given me this time to make true resolutions, to get my heart in order, to prepare the way of the Lord, and prepare for this Christmas Season. What has been my resolution for this year and for all the years to come till eternity? To be holy. How can I become holy? Through prayer and participation in the Sacraments as often as possible. In the Eucharist I am sustained in my resolution. In Reconciliation, I am dusted off and encouraged to continue in that one resolution - "get holy or die trying!" Mary, Mother of God, pray for us!