Richard Cohen {"They Should Have Criticized the Pope," op-ed, Sept. 15} decries the recent actions of American Jewish leaders in their Rome meeting with Pope John Paul II as displaying "a kind of ghetto mentality." Since the pope offered no public apology for his earlier meeting with Austrian President Kurt Waldheim, Mr. Cohen would have preferred continued anger and outrage from these Jews instead of the positive expressions that were used to describe their papal visit.

While it was American Jewry's intense and heated criticisms of Mr. Waldheim's reception by the pope (by no means typical of a "ghetto mentality") and the prospect of a boycott by Jewish leaders of a long-planned ceremonial encounter with him in Miami that brought about the meeting in Rome in the first place, Kurt Waldheim is not the overriding issue between Jews and the Vatican.

An apology was in order, but it was far less important than the need to press the church to examine its own role in sowing the seeds of anti-Semitism, to ensure that the events of the Holocaust and the destruction of European Jewry be remembered, and to establish full and formal diplomatic relations with the state of Israel. These were the primary topics of discussion in Rome, as well they should have been, and it was in the Vatican responses on these matters that American Jewish leaders found cause for optimism.

Only time will tell if they are correct, but if so one could not suggest a better form of apology. ANDREW BAKER Washington Rabbi Baker is Washington area director of the American Jewish Committee.