Q — On Ash Wednesday we received ashes and were told, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” With Catholic teaching about an eventual resurrection after death, why are we told such a seemingly morbid and fatalistic thing?

Why not simply say something like, “These ashes are a sign of repentance?” It seems to me that the emphasis should be on the fact that, even though we are stained by sin, we will live again. Could you comment? (southern Indiana)

A — In recent years, there has been an option with regard to the distribution of ashes. Those administering them may say the traditional “Remember that you are dust ...” or they may opt instead to use the formula, “Repent and believe in the Gospel.”

I always choose the latter, for some of the same reasons that you have cited. The “dust” line does, though, remind us that we are both human and mortal, and it is taken directly from the Book of Genesis (3:19).

This year, 2021, the distribution of ashes looked a bit different in Catholic parishes. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Vatican recommended that ashes not be applied directly to the forehead but instead be sprinkled over the head of those receiving them.

This had already been the method used in some parts of the world, such as Italy. This year, the celebrant said one of the two formulae only once, prior to distributing the ashes, to avoid having to speak in close proximity to the one receiving them.

Q — I recall some time ago a change in the language of the creed we say at Sunday Mass to make it more inclusive. The new phrases were things like “For us and for our salvation” and “was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became one of us.” I realized recently, though, that our parish no longer uses this newer language and has gone back to “for us men” and “became man.”

When was it decided to revert to the older language? Or perhaps the inclusive language was not universal — in my case, perhaps it started at the parish of the university I attended. (Lansdale, Pennsylvania)

A — The phrases that you quote — “for us and for our salvation” and “became one of us” — are “homemade versions” of the language of the Nicene Creed and have never enjoyed any official status. My guess is that the priest at the university parish you attended crafted that wording himself, so as not to offend any members of the congregation.

The actual text — as approved for use at Mass and as it appears in the Catechism of the Catholic Church — is the following: “For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man.”

Should it be of any comfort to you, as I have mentioned before in this column, the Latin word from which the English is translated — “homines” — is generic; it means “person” or “human being,” not “member of the male sex.”

But the average participant at Mass can't be expected to know this, and so I look forward to the day when the Mass text in English will reflect more clearly that wider meaning. Meanwhile, I often choose to use instead the Apostles' Creed, which is a permissible liturgical alternative and whose language cannot be misunderstood as exclusive.