Pope John Paul II, in a letter released yesterday by American Catholic officials, called Jews "our elder brothers in the faith of Abraham" and promised to "encourage and bless" all theologically sound efforts to deepen Catholic-Jewish understanding.

The pontiff, who is scheduled to meet with Jewish leaders next month in Italy, did not mention the controversy surrounding his welcome to the Vatican in June of Austria's president, Kurt Waldheim, accused of involvement with Nazi atrocities during World War II.

Jewish leaders said yesterday that the pontiff has scheduled a 90-minute open-ended discussion with them Sept. 1 at Castel Gandolfo, his summer residence, to discuss those and other issues.

A ceremonial meeting with Jewish representatives is scheduled next month when the pope arrives in Miami.

The pontiff's letter said, "It is not permissible for anyone to pass by with indifference" the "terrifying experience of the extermination . . . suffered by the Jews during the Second World War."

The Holocaust, he said, "shows us to what terrible consequences the lack of faith in God and a contempt for man created in his image can lead."

The pope's letter, dated Aug. 8, is addressed to Archbishop John May of St. Louis, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

It acknowledges the conference's publication earlier this year of John Paul's public statements on Jews and Judaism. The book is a joint effort of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith and the conference.

In the last 20 years, increased dialogue and understanding between Catholics and Jews prompted the church to purge from its teachings and liturgy concepts that Jewish scholars believe contributed to anti-Semitism.

"There is no doubt that the sufferings endured by the Jews are also for the Catholic Church a motive of sincere sorrow, especially when one thinks of the indifference and sometimes resentment which, in particular historical circumstance, have divided Jews and Christians," the pope's letter

said.

Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum of the American Jewish Committee, a veteran of Catholic-Jewish dialogues who helped arranged the Sept. 1 meeting, welcomed the pope's statement yesterday, saying it "sets the stage for us to deal with those issues in a very substantial way."

The Sept. 1 meeting between the pontiff and five Jewish leaders calls for "no speeches," Tanenbaum said, because the pope "wanted real conversation."

"In my 25 years" of dealing with the Vatican, the Jewish leader said, "this kind of open-ended session is unprecedented."